Chase For Kelly Literally Begins Anew for Nailers

Bavis in charge of young Wheeling squad that opens Saturday on road in Norfolk

Photo by Zack Rawson Mike Bavis came aboard late in the summer, but likes the Wheeling Nailers team he has assembled. The Nailers begin their 27th season in Wheeling by traveling to Norfolk, Virginia, on Saturday night.

WHEELING — Out with the old and in with the new. That’s the direction the Wheeling Nailers have elected to go as they get set to open the 2018-19 regular season at 7 on Saturday night inside The Scope against the Norfolk Admirals.

New coach? Check. Mike Bavis is in the building

New roster? Check. With the exceptions of Dan Fick, Cam Brown and both Kevin Spinozzi and Danny Tirone who combined wore the Wheeling sweater 14 times last season, the entire roster was overhauled.

New division? Check again. The Nailers are now a part of the rugged Central Division, which is hope to perennial contenders Toledo, Fort Wayne and Cincinnati, as well as Kalamazoo and Indy.

New goal? Never. The Nailers have had a winning record for 10 straight seasons and have played in two Eastern Conference Finals and a Kelly Cup Final. The idea is always to win a championship.

”We hope we’re a fun team to watch and obviously we hope to win a lot of hockey games,” Bavis said. ”We want to be in a position to win a championship sometime in late spring, but that’s a long process.

”We feel good about the group we have here.”

One thing is for certain, the group Bavis has brought here is young. But it offers bundles of talent and youthful exuberence. That will be on display for the first time at WesBanco Arena on Nov. 3 when Wheeling welcomes the Indy Fuel to town. The Nailers open with four straight road games in a span of 18 days.

”It shapes up that way and we’re going to do some things to keep them fresh,” Bavis said. ”It’s tough to practice five straight days.

”We’ll spend some time doing some different things and I am sure we’ll pay for it later in the year” when games are grouped closer together.

Here’s a look at the roster as it’s currently constructed, though additional moves have to be made prior to opening night.

Goaltenders

The carousel in the Pittsburgh organization is already in motion, with Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh due to the concussion of starter and two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray who is out indefinitely. In Wheeling that means Danny Tirone (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Matt O’Connor (6-6, 205) and Evan Cowley (6-4, 201) could all see time.

”Our intention is to keep three goaltenders as long as we can. That’s to give them the best chance to prove they belong here, and for us to have the chance to pick the right ones,” Bavis said. ”For this very reason with what’s going on up in the organization, we’re glad we have three goalies here.

”We will evaluate that when that situation does or doesn’t improve further up the chain of command in Wilkes and Pittsburgh.”

Defensemen

There isn’t a ton of pro experience here, but the position seems to be a deep one.

It starts with Fick (6-0, 200), a fourth-year pro who has spent his entire career with Wheeling, save for a two-game stint with the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage in 2016-17. Last season Fick registered a career-high 23 points (4g-19a) in 70 games and was a plus-13.

”We are younger but you look at a guy like Dan Fick who we expect to be a real stalwart for us back there,” Bavis said. ”He is definitely a guy that we are counting on to show good leadership and he’s done a great job so far.

”It’s a fact that we are going to have our adversity and that’s the time a guy like him has to say the right thing and keep everything on an even keel.

”We’re counting on Danny.”

Spinozzi (6-2, 204) played the first 28 games of his pro career last season, split between Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre. He possesses a dangerous shot from the point and could be a key to the power play.

”He can really shoot it and he’s mobile across the line. We’re going to work with him to be more efficient in doing that,” Bavis said. ”There’s a difference between a defenseman that is (Kris) Letang-like who can hold it, look a defender off and go with it the other way, and a defenseman who can be mobile enough to deliver it and shoot it.

”They’re both offensive but they’re different styles. So we need to work with him to play to his strengths.”

Johnny Austin (5-9, 195) and Dane Birks (6-3, 185) both spent time in the Baby Penguins camp and should help the back end. Austin scored in Wednesday night’s scrimmage and had one point in nine games last year with Laval of the AHL after finishing his collegiate career at UConn. Birks scored 18 points (5g-13a) in his final season at Michigan Tech, before playing one game in Wilkes at the end of 2017-18.

”Those guys just came down and look pretty poised,” Bavis said.

They’re joined by 6-4, 215-pound right-handed shot Aaron Titcomb, Robbie Hall (5-11, 185), a SPHL veteran of 61 games in two seasons, Craig Skudalski (6-6, 215), a Wyoming, Pennsylvania, native who has been to camp with the Nailers multiple times but has shuffled between the SPHL and FHL the last two seasons, and Josh Couturier (6-2, 189), a rookie out of UMass-Amherst.

Brien Diffley (6-2, 184) is a rookie out of Boston University, where he scored four points (2g-2a) in 17 games a season ago.

Forwards

This group features a little bit of everything, but the main ingredient Bavis likes is speed. He prefers his teams to get north and south as quickly as possible on every shift.

Cam Brown (5-7, 150) is a speed merchant who scored 53 points (17g-36a) in 55 games last season in a Wheeling uniform, then spent 13 games with WBS, earning an AHL contract during the offseason.

Nick Saracino (5-11, 185) played 40 games in the AHL for Iowa during the 2015-16 and 16-17 seasons before spending all of last year — 61 games — with the then-expansion Worcester Railers, where he scored 37 points (12g-25a). He came over in an offseason trade that send former Wheeling captain Nick Sorkin to the Railers.

Robert Morris product and Pittsburgh native Zac Lynch (6-0, 180) was acquired in another offseason deal, coming over from the Manchester Monarchs where he scored 46 points (22g-24a) in 58 games last season. He has played 36 AHL games.

”We’ve got a nice of veteran presence and smart hockey players who make plays and are reliable in all three zones,” Bavis said. ”Nick Saracino is really reliable.

”Zac Lynch is a high-skilled player.”

Cedric Lacroix (6-1, 180) has some sandpaper to his game and could fill a similar role to the one Garrett Meurs provided the last several seasons. He had 11 points (6g-5a) and 26 penalty minutes during his senior season at Maine.

Tyler Bird (6-2, 200), a former fifth-round pick of Coumbus in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and Alex Rauter (6-1, 183) are a pair of rookies who are expected to make a splash. Bird played four years at Brown University while Rauter is a Cornell grad who got a cup of coffee with ECHL Atlanta as the end of last season.

”Cedric Lacroix gives us some hardness and skating ability,” Bavis said. ”Tyler Bird and Alex Rauter are both guys you don’t have to wind up … they go.”

Winston Day Chief (6-2, 190), a 30-year-old veteran provides a net-front presence and scored 22 goals last season for Cincinnati. And Renars Krastenbergs ia an intriguing prospect who spent the last two seasons with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League.

”Winston Day Chief just got here and he’s a guy that’s a heavy player that’s played in the league,” Bavis said. ”Renars Krastenbergs is a pretty high-skilled kid at 19 years old.”

Christian Isackson (6-1, 190) is a former seventh-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres who played the last two seasons overseas, accumulating 54 points (22g-32a) in 62 games. Brad Drobot (6-4, 215) has spent his entire career in the SPHL where he has racked up 558 penalty minutes in 186 games.

Eliot Grauer (5-11, 200) was a point per-game SPHL player in Knoxville last season. Mark Petaccio (6-3, 200) did a little bit of everything last season for Evansville of the SPHL, scoring 18 goals and racking up 73 PIMs. Michael Phillips (5-11, 185) is a rookie out of Babson College and Yush Hirano (6-0, 200) scored 46 points in 54 games during the 2015-16 USHL season, playing for former Nailers assistant coach John Wroblewski.