Nailers Ready to Begin 21st Season in Wheeling


Sports Editor

WHEELING – First-year coach Clark Donatelli says his team is going to play hard, fast and physical. Coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, the Wheeling Nailers would like nothing better than to take home the ultimate prize during the 2012-13 season.

The annual ritual that is the chase for the Kelly Cup, begins Saturday night in Cincinnati.

”You’ll see guys working hard, finishing their checks, doing the little things,” Donatelli said. ”Mostly I want our stamp to be that we’re a really hard team to play against – a hard-working team.

”We’ll work really hard in our own zone and breaking out of our own zone.”

The NHL lockout presented its sets of challenges for Donatelli and first-year pro assistant Zach Sonnefeld in terms of choosing the roster. They settled on two goaltenders, six defensemen and 15 forwards. Of that 23-man roster, 13 came down from the American Hockey League.

”The trickle-down effect with the NHL lockout, and each team I want to say there’s 3-7 guys pushed down from the NHL, so 3-7 guys have to go to the ECHL which makes it a lot better and it’s more competitive,” Donatelli said. ”It’s good for the league and good for the Wheeling Nailers.

”Fans should come on down and watch us because you’re going to get to see some really good prospects from Pittsburgh and Montreal.”

It’s apparent the vast majority of these guys would no be here if not for the work stoppage, but Donatelli insists there won’t be any egos and promised there will be absolutely no special treatment.

”If they’re working hard we will be able to live with the mistakes,” the coach said. ”As long as the effort is there and they’re working hard, then we will be fine.

”If not, guys won’t play and it will be that simple.”

The higher-end talent that will partake in the league this year will make special teams even more important. Donatelli said this group has the ability to excel in the current climate.

”It’s more the penalty killing. They’re going to have to be in the shot lanes and block shots,” Donatelli said. ”You can’t get away with cheating a little bit. If you’re off by 6 inches the puck is going to be in the net.

”And one-touches are a must. You’ve got to get the puck down the ice – you can’t fan on it and you can’t not get it off the glass.”

Charged with doing that will be a mixture of returnees and some newcomers. Adam Ross was acquired in a trade at midseason last year, while Peter Merth is starting his third season in Wheeling. Joe Stejskal is a former fifth-round pick of the Canadiens, Paul Cianfrini came over in an offseason deal with Toledo and Wild was in camp with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

McNeill, a sixth-round pick of the Penguins in 2010, is thought to have the most upside.

”I think our ‘D’ core, I am happy with it,” Donatelli said. ”You look at the ‘D’ core with the forwards, and they have to work as a unit of five.

”Our defense has to finish its checks, come back and track and come down low with support.

”I think they’re tough and we’ve got some really good, stay-at-home-defensemen.”

That group will be tasked with helping goaltenders Patrick Killeen (6-foot-4), who like Merth has already played two years in Wheeling, and Scott Darling (6-6) keep the puck out of the back of the Nailers net.

”They’re both very capable of doing the job,” said Donatelli, who noted there’s still a chance Wheeling will see a goaltender – likely Peter Delmas or Robert Mayer – sent down from Hamilton. ”They take up a lot of room and they move well.

”We’re very fortunate that we have two good goalies here.”

Scoring shouldn’t be an issue.

Chris Barton is back after scoring 33 goals last season en route to being named to the ECHL All-Rookie team. He’s joined by holdovers Paul Crowder, Cody Chupp, Ben Farrer, Zack Torquato and Cam Fergus.

Tom Kuhnackal (fourth round in 2010) and Dominik Uher (fifth rounder in 2011) are Penguins prospects with bright futures. Adam Payerl showed some grit while in Wilkes-Barre camp, while Bobby Farnham did the same with Hamilton.

Ian Schultz (6-2, 200), a former third-round pick by St. Louis is thought to be the team’s thumper, though he has a game to go with his brawn. Stefan Chaput, a fifth-round selection by Carolina in 2006 has spent parts of the last five seasons in the AHL with various teams, while Phillipe Lefebvre jumped straight from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the AHL with Hamilton last season.

Steve Zurevinski scored 47 goals in his college career at Quinnipiac, while the wild card could be Daultan Leveille, a former No. 1 pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008. He spent the last four years at Michigan State.

”They’ve been playing the game a long time so we’re just going to put our system in play,” Donatelli said. ”I’m sure they’ve played some form of it, so let the hockey sense take over.

”You’ve got to work hard, but you’ve got to work smart. The best guys, comparing them to guys in the NHL, are usually the hardest workers on the team. If you have a lot of skill, that’s not going to get you there. You’ve got to have the work ethic to go along with the skill level.”

This team came together slowly in the preseason, so fans might have to be a little patient as the parts get pieced together. One of the good things, according to Donatelli, is the Nailers open with four straight games on the road so it will give guys a chance to get to know one another a little better.

”I think it’s a good thing because the guys are going to be living together and we’ll be in the hotels and watching a lot of film,” Donatelli said. ”We’ll be teaching them a lot and there won’t be any distractions.

”They will already be moved in here so we will have their undivided attention on the road.

”I think that’s going to be a plus because we’re going to go into some hostile environments and it’s going to be their opening nights. So we’re going to have to be patient and weather the storm and come out and push the pace. But that is all part of the learning experience, and I anticipate us having a really good start.”

Defenseman Zach Hansen will join forwards Peter Lenes and Christiaan Minella on injured reserve to start the season.