Christian Excited About 2017 Nailers
Wheeling opens tonight in Greenville
WHEELING — Coach Jeff Christian is having a hard time containing his exuberance as the Wheeling Nailers open the 2017-18 season at 7 tonight at Greenville. He thinks the club has the makings of something special, but is approaching things with guarded optimism, which is more a fact of life in the ECHL than anything else.
“We’ve got the potential,” Christian said on the eve of his second season behind the bench. “We want to be fast, physical, aggressive and disciplined.
“You get guys that you clearly define their role and they accept that. We have talked about that over and over and guys have already bought into that.
“These guys care about the logo and the brand. They are going to play for the logo and each other,”
Last season at this time the Wheeling roster was littered with first-year players. One of the things Christian learned in his first year behind the Nailers bench, is you have to mix in some veterans. He was able to do that in the offseason.
“You have to go recruit the best team you can,” Christian said. “In our last 10 games last year when we were trying to make the playoffs we went something like 2-5-3 and had 13 rookies playing, including six rookie defensemen.
“We’ve got the culture rebuilt.
“There were tough decisions in camp and that’s what we wanted.”
Derek Army (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), starting his fifth professional season — all of which have included time in Wheeling — will serve as the captain. Nick Sorkin (6-4, 202) and Dan Fick (6-0, 200) will be the alternates.
“Those were voted on my their teammates,” Christian said.
Under ECHL rules teams can carry 23 players on their roster at the start of the season, with two having to be placed on reserve.
Here’s a look at the roster.
Sean Maguire (6-2, 202) is back for his second season after going 14-16-1 with a goals-against average of 3.20 and a .897 save percentage. A former fourth-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins, he is the unquestioned No. 1.
“Maguire can be elite,” Christian said. “We need him to play more consistently and I think we will be fine.
“There’s an old saying that goes, ‘the word hockey should be replaced with one word: goaltending.’ “
Maguire was injured in the preseason but recently returned to the ice for practice. Christian hopes to have him in goal tonight against the Swamp Rabbits.
The Nailers signed 24-year-old Colin Stevens (6-2, 180) to be the backup. He split time between Manchester and Tulsa last year, accumulating a record of 10-18-2.
“We go out and sign the guy who won a national championship at Union,” Christian said. “I know his numbers aren’t great at the ECHL level, but you look at his pedigree and his compete level.
“If one gets in trouble I guarantee the other will step up.”
This was a trouble spot a year ago for the Nailers. Their backend was young and inexperienced, and mostly included skilled players. Christian wanted to get older at these spots and was able to do so.
He brought in guys like Zach Tolkinen (6-3, 205) in a trade and signed Benjamin Dieude-Fauvel (6-2, 220). Dan Milan (6-3, 200) is expected to be a key piece and Jake Bolton (6-2, 215) was one of the first signings announced.
They will join holdovers Kevin Schulze (5-9, 165), an ECHL All-Star last season, as well as Ross McMullan (6-4, 205) and Fick (6-0, 200), who had a career-high 15 points last season (3g-12a).
“I told our defensemen we need to block 10 shots a game,” Christian said. “Everyone is buying into that defense-first mentality.
“If we block 10 shots and cut the shot total from 40 down to 30 and we score three goals — and we’re going to — we will win a lot of games.
“We’ve got the potential, but we have to work for it.”
This is a deep, skilled and gritty unit, which is just the way Christian and assistant Riley Armstrong, who is also in his second season with the team, drew it up.
It starts with the captain, Army, who has 106 points (52g-54a) in 133 career games in a Wheeling uniform.
“Army is the ultimate glue guy,” Christian said.
Sorkin spent eight games in the American Hockey League last season, but in 57 with the Nailers scored 57 points (14g-43a). He used the summer to work on his goal-scoring abilities.
Cody Wydo (5-11, 185) returns after scoring 30 goals. Daniel Leavens (6-2, 200), who tallied eight points (five goals) in seven games at the end of last season after finishing up at Robert Morris, also returns.
Riley Bourbonnais (5-11, 195), who also joined the Nailers late last season posting eight points (five goals) in 10 games, earned an AHL deal this summer but will start with Wheeling. A pest in the highest regard, Garrett Meurs (6-0, 180), returns after scoring 55 points (25 goals) and accumulating 117 penalty minutes in 71 games.
Reid Gardiner (5-11, 193) is expected to put up big numbers. He had six points (3g-3a) in 23 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before being sent back to his junior team where he scored 37 points in 28 games.
Johnny Daniels (5-10, 165) impressed with his speed and goal scoring last season and could see an expanded role this year.
Kenny Ryan (6-0, 209) has extensive AHL experience (247 games) and is only 26 years old. Much is being expected of him, as it will be from Cam Brown (5-7, 155) and Hunter Fejes (6-2, 208).
“Hunter Fejes was recruited by everyone in the ECHL but he came here because he liked the culture and knows he has a chance to get called up,” Christian said. “That guy has it all and is an animal.”
And then there are Alexandre Carrier (6-3, 225), Jeremy Beirnes (6-0, 195) and Bryan Arneson (5-11, 192), who earned a deal after impressing at the Nailers’ free-agent tryout this summer at Wilkes-Barre.
“The thinking from Day 1 was to bring in couple of tough guys that put the fear of God in guys,” Christian said. “We play in a rink that is 12 feet short of regulation.
“Things happen faster and we needed to be more physical.”
Where the season goes will play out during the course of the next seven months. Christian thinks this team is better prepared for success than its predecessor.
“It’s not easy to win. You’ve got to sacrifice,” Christian said. “I learned so much my first year, and that includes that it really helps to have really good players.
“It’s hard to develop a whole team of guys to an elite level, so go get some.”