The Wheeling Nailers season came to end this past weekend with a home and home with the playoff bound Kalamazoo Wings that both of the home teams won decisively, as the regular season concluded without Wheeling (who had been eliminated for about the last week) holding down one of the 16 spots in the Kelly Cup Playoffs, missing the dance just one year after coming within two wins of winning it all. Monday the players cleaned out their lockers and a lot of them are back at home now, and Tuesday the ice came out of WesBanco Arena, signifying the end to the 25th season of hockey in Wheeling.
While many involved would call it a disappointing season having missed the playoffs, they were able to finish with a record of 34-30-8 to come away with their ninth consecutive winning season, and 19th in 25 years, and had plenty of bright spots along the way.
After guiding the Nailers through rounds 2-4 of the post season last spring as an interim coach, Nailers coach Jeff Christian was at the helm the whole way this year, his first full year in a pro coaching role, and he mentioned several times down the stretch just how much he felt like he had learned over the course of the season.
“It’s a process, I’ve learned a lot going through a full year,” Christian said. “Last year with all of those playoff games it was almost like a full year, but my first full year I learned a lot.”
To go with a rookie head coach, and a rookie assistant in Riley Armstrong for that matter, the Nailers had a lot of rookies on the ice this year, a lot of which made a ton of strides and progress as the season went along. Most notably guys like defenseman Kevin Schulze, who tied for the team lead with 60 points (13 goal, 47 assists), forwards Christian Hilbrich, who ended with 16 goals and 45 points, and Gage Quinney who had 18 goals and 44 points, blue liner Michael Webster, who had 29 points, and goaltender Sean Maguire who had a stellar January during which he was the goalie of the month, and finished with 14 victories and two shutouts in 35 appearances.
All in all, 17 of the 43 players to play in a game for the Nailers this season were rookies.
Foundation to Build from:
As is usual in the ECHL, late in the year the Nailers brought in some players as their college seasons and careers wrapped up respectively, and they made an impact.
Daniel Leavens followed the path of guys like Aaron Clarke, Chris Kushneriuk, and most recently former college teammate and Nailers leading scorer Cody Wydo from the Robert Morris Colonials to Wheeling, and he had quite a bit of success in his short stint with the team. The 23 year old forward netted five goals and three assists for eight points in seven games in impressive fashion.
Also having success with the Nailers after his college career ended was R. P. I. product Riley Bourbonnais who, like Leavens, also netted five goals and eight points, including a hat trick during the home finale last Friday.
Also seeing action with the Nailers out of the college/junior ranks were defeseman Matias Cleland (New Hampshire) who scored a goal, as well as CJ Garcia (Saginaw OHL) and Brett Corkey (Colgate) who each were held off the score sheet in three and four games respectively.
Another in season addition that turned heads but came from the SPHL instead of the college ranks was Johnny Daniels, whose speed and grit won fans over and allowed him to have some success on the score sheet as well, putting up six goals – including a 57 second natural hat trick – and 10 points in 25 games.
One more player that comes to mind in particular in this category, primarily because Christian has taken every opportunity to do so to talk about him as part of the teams future, is rookie defenseman Ross McMullan, who went from a tryout player in training camp with long odds of even making the team, to an early season healthy scratch just fighting to get into a game, to eventually becoming a staple on the Nailers blue line and one of their top stay at home defenders late in the year, putting up three goals, six assists, 42 PIM, and a plus-5 rating in 46 games.
“It was unbelievable, I had a great time,” McMullan said. “I learned that confidence is very important when it comes to sports, life, and anything, I learned that it’s a different game than the game I was used to in college hockey.
“I was excited to be throne in on the penalty kill throughout the year, and out in the final minutes in some games as the year went on. Each time I got a little better, a little more confident and more sure of myself.
“I know I can do it now, so I’m not starting from square one, but square 50 or 60 when I come in next year.
Christian likes the foundation to build from.
“We’re looking to bring back the majority of this team for training camp. I’ve already started, we have some futures that we have to cash in. I’m already starting the process of replacing with our core in place.”
What Went Wrong:
This first one is quite obvious, as the Nailers penalty kill was a struggle from start to finish, and ended up finishing an all time low in team history at just 75% efficiency.
While scoring goals was not much trouble for the Nailers, as they had two players hit the 60 point mark, four put up 50+, and seven break the 40 point mark, with a thirty goal scorer, three twenty goal scorers, and a total of ten players in double digits in goals, and as a whole Nailers players registered 655 combined points for a seven year high, but they gave up a lot of goals too, finishing with a goal differential of just plus-5, finishing with a goals per game average of 3.39, to a team GAA of 3.32, also the highest mark in seven seasons. This can be attributed to a young defense core, which Christian said he plan to address this off season by adding experience to the back end, which he hopes will also be a boost to the PK as well.
“I definitely want to get some veteran players in here,” Christian said. “I think that was a huge reason our penalty was suffering.
“We’ve got to find some defensive defenseman that will block shots, pay the price, and can help out our goaltenders and the penalty kill department.
“It’s a long summer, Riley (Armstrong) and I have already started with our lists just evaluating who we think we can go after and I think (Pittsburgh) is going to have a big say in who we bring in here.”
The Penguins organization as a whole went through a lot of injuries down the stretch, leaving the Nailers with some of their important pieces in the AHL, and they had injuries of their own too, including to Jordan Kwas late in the year cutting what was a career year for him short at a time when the Nailers were fighting for their playoff lives.
“We need to get depth in this organization, so when the Penguins, both Pittsburgh and Wilkes, get hurt, we don’t get decimated like we did this year. We’ve got to find that depth with guys that can solidify the line up.”
They would not make an excuse out of it, but the Nailers also had the schedule working against them late in the year too, with just one game against Manchester all season, two against Adirondack, making it tough to chase down those teams.
“Scheduling kind of caught up to us, I think that hopefully we’ll do a better job with our schedule next year and play more inter-divisional games if that’s what is going to weigh into the playoff process.”
The road was also not kind to the Nailers, who went just 13-19-4 away from WesBanco Arena ice, while having a successful run on home ice going 21-11-4 for a ninth consecutive and 22nd overall winning record on home ice.
Wheeling also struggled in 3-on-3 overtime, which let valuable points get away down the stretch as well, going just 2-8 in the extra five minute frame, while also picking a win in their only shootout of the season clear back in October. Their three wins in extra time tied for fewest in team history, and their 8 overtime losses was a new team record.
Big Wins, Successful Times:
While the Nailers are not a playoff team, they did have some impressive wins on their resume during the course of the season, including success against a Toledo team that won the regular season title and not many were able to have much success against, and a big win over Manchester back when the Monarchs were the top team in the league.
During the month of January, the Nailers were at their best, going on a season high six game win streak with guys like Jarrett Burton and Adam Krause in the lineup and Maguire playing light out. They went 8-3-1 as a whole that month, and looked nearly unbeatable at times.
“We were rolling at times,” forward Tyler Currier said. “We were unbeatable almost.
“We lose a couple guys to some callups and some big injuries and things didn’t turn out the way we want them to.
“At times when we were playing well we were almost unbeatable.”
Currier also talked about the tight bond the team formed down the stretch.
“The brotherhood in the locker room is something you can’t ever change. Those are 22 of my best friends in there, always going to take care of them and keep in touch.
“I love it here, it’s a great spot. Good fans, get treated great in the locker room, it’s disappointing not to make the playoffs but I had a great experience from the coaches, to the players, to the staff, everything was Grade-A.”
It was also a good year for Wheeling from an attendance standpoint, as they had a total of 95,419, or an average of 2,651 per game, which is second to only last season in the last seven.
The Nailers had 16 players (Anderson, Army, Burton, Carr, Fick, Hilbrich, Krause, Maguire, Meurs, Prow, Schulze, Segalla, Sorkin, Stern, Webster, Wydo) get time in the AHL after being with the team this year, and had two players make their NHL debuts, as both Carter Rowney (2013-15) and J. S. Dea (2014-15) saw action with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We feel good about these guys that we develop into players,” Christian said. “We’re going to just keep hammering away at development here.
“I got some good feedback (from Pittsburgh) on our guys with regards to how they played, like Cody Wydo and Christian Hilbrich, and that’s what you hang your hat on as a coach at this level.
“For us developing players is the first priority, we have the best affiliation in the (ECHL) with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, nobody has a relationship like we do. I’m put in place primarily to develop the prospects, which is what we do.
“The fans of Wheeling and the organization want to win and get into the playoffs of course, it’s a very fine line but we can do both and will do both, but as a coach this year we’re really going to hang our hat on the success of our guys at the next level.”
Christian said the experience was fun.
“It’s been a fun ride for me, it’s been amazing, I appreciate the opportunity here in Wheeling. It’s a very special place.”
Like Christian, I also had fun. Thanks for reading along all season!
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