Nailers Begin New Season
The roster movement in a developmental league such as the ECHL can be tremendous from one season to the next. There may not be a better example than the 2008-2009 Wheeling Nailers, who begin their 17th season in town at 7:35 tonight at home against defending Kelly Cup champion Cincinnati.
Sometimes that’s good, while other times it can be devastating. In the case of the Nailers, it seems to be the former as just five players remain from a team that finished 22-43-3-4 for 51 points, which was next to last in the 25-team league.
But with a new season comes a new attitude and new expectations.
”We’re really excited,” Nailers co-President Jim Brooks said. ”Obviously missing the playoffs the last two years we needed to do something different, and I think we’ve done that already.
”There’s a youthful enthusiasm around here that there hasn’t been for a couple of years.”
Basically, the entire approach has been somewhat altered. There won’t be a lot of top-end guys on the Opening-Night roster, which is in stark contrast to what the organization began with a year ago. Instead, management says this will be a lunch-pail, hard hat-wearing club that comes to work every night, something Coach Greg Puhalski demands from his teams.
”Greg knows this level – he’s won championships at this level as both a player and coach,” Brooks said. ”How Greg has been doing things so far, we keep having guys come in.
”Even though you’re here one day, doesn’t mean you’re going to be here tomorrow.
”It’s good because guys are on edge and they need to be. And the ones who are rookies need to learn that about the pros: there aren’t nights off and you’ve got to work every day including practice, and I think (Puhalski’s) done a good job instilling that right from the get-go.”
That’s one thing all the players are saying about their coach: he’s fair, but he’s demanding. That’s a hard line to walk, but Brooks says so far Puhalski has done an outstanding job.
A Big Difference
One of the major changes this season is the manner in which the roster was assembled. No longer will the Nailers be top-heavy with talent. Securing true, across-the-board depth was of the utmost importance during offseason recruiting.
”I feel much more comfortable about our depth this year,” Brooks says. ”We were really good at the top two lines, but our depth really fell off.
”There’s a couple cuts that we’ve made already that we would have never made last year. To me, I know the league gets better every year too, but to me that makes us feel comfortable.”
That, he hopes will make things easier when the inevitable call-ups begin.
”I think when a lot of these guys are going to get an opportunity to get called up, I think we could sustain life without them for a longer time than we did last year,” Brooks said. ”We’ve really increased our overall depth. Like I said, we’re young, but we are very deep.
”I think we can handle a couple more call-ups.”
Brooks believes this will be the type of team fans of this area, most of whom make their living at blue-collar jobs, will be able to relate to. Stars are sure to emerge, but for the most part the Nailers will try to outwork the opposition and win a lot of 1-0, 2-1 games.
”We are really strong – we really like our goaltenders and our defense,” Brooks said. ”Those are areas that we noticed we were hurting last year, especially in the depth level.
”Taking a look back at last year at the beginning of the season versus the middle and the end of the season, that’s where you saw the real struggles for our team.
”We put extra emphasis, for sure, on making sure that area would be really strong for us. ”
Confidence is Crucial
Most see preseason games as meaningless. No points are awarded, but Brooks thinks it would be a mistake to assume the two victories last weekend against Johnstown didn’t help the confidence level of his team.
”I went on the road trip with them, and if somebody would have told me it was a preseason game during the bus trip it would have been a total shock, because these guys were taking it as work,” he said. ”They should have been because they’re trying to make the team. I think a couple of them made the team that probably weren’t going to make the team.
”I think you’re going to see that continue on. They worked hard, got some confidence. I’m not sure the level of a team Johnstown had on the ice those couple of nights, but we feel confident we played well.”
One of the things the Nailers are leery of is prolonged losing streaks like the ones the last two seasons that for all intents and purposes took the club out of the playoff picture early.
”As much as you want to win 4 or 5 in a row, it’s even worse to lose 4 or 5 in a row,” Brooks said. ”You’ve got to have consistency, and if you fall into an inconsistent streak where you lose 6 or 7, it’s really going to set you back.
”I hope we don’t get into that. Obviously it’s hard to predict that, but we’ve got to hold our composure and our focus and not get too caught up in a single loss and be able to turn the page and move forward.
”We’ve got to win. We know that and we owe that to our fan base – we have to win.”
Brooks reports season ticket renewals went well, and they also saw a significant hike during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
”We’re very happy. We saw a big spike – I think we sold about 75 new season tickets during the Penguins’ playoff run,” he said. ”People we’re thinking hockey all the way to June and they’re not normally doing that. Hopefully they are thinking about Nailers all the way through June this year, but that really helped us.
That he says, is a direct result of the hard work – there’s those words again – of the front office staff.
”Hats off to our staff here for their, not only diligent work, but their creativeness too coming up with new ticket packages and promotions and themes we’re going to have this year,” Brooks said. ”Just keeping it family friendly and pure entertainment.
”The hockey’s going to be better this year, but the entertainment is going to be just as good.”
Tommy Goebel, Aaron Clarke, Bryan Ewing, Rob Sirianni, Jordan Morrison, Erik Johnson, Andrew Lord, Matt Grennier, Kelly Miller, Cedrick Bernier, Jon Grecu, Tobias Holm, Nathan Barrett.
Cliff Loya, Todd Spencer, Jonathan Bernier, Jeremy Scherlinck, Brock Sheahan, Mitch Ganzak, Elgin Reid, Doug Krantz.
Curtis Darling, David Brown.