The Nailers have one of the most interesting cases in all of hockey, having a rookie head coach who has coached the team in the league finals as Jeff Christian will be behind the bench for his first full season as the coach, and Saturday night’s season opener will be his first head coaching appearance in the regular season as he took over last year in the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs. In those playoffs the Nailers went 10-9-1 under the helm of Christian, and came just two victories shy of winning it all. Joining him on the bench will be another rookie in Riley Armstrong, who wrapped up his playing career just last season with the Reading Royals.
While there has been no formal announcement about who will be Wheeling’s captain just yet, Shawn Rine from the Wheeling Intelligencer tweeted it’s shaping up to be Derek Army. Other candidates could be Brett Stern, who received praise last year for his leadership abilities, or Cody Wydo who also received praise, wore an ‘A’ at times, and was a captain in college at Robert Morris.
Last season was a memorable one for the Nailers, and quite the roller coaster ride. Wheeling had three different head coaches, went from at one point being in first place in the division in December to tied for last in the Conference in January, then surged dramatically late in the year to wind up finishing 37-26-9 and as the #5 seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs began. The Nailers were the low seed underdog in every round, but dispatched Florida in six games, and came back from 3-2 series deficits against both Reading and the South Carolina Stingrays to win the Eastern Conference, becoming the first team in league history to win games six and seven on the road in the process. Ultimately the Nailers came up short in the Kelly Cup Finals to the Allen Americans, who won their second straight Kelly Cup four games to two, but it was a tightly contested series.
This is a much different Nailers team than fans have come to be used to, virtually at every position. While some of the “Bad Boys” did return, most of the longest-tenured members of the team did not.
Who’s Back? Notable Returners:
- Derek Army – the 25-year-old played 36 games in the AHL with four different teams, but still managed to put up 23 points in 29 games with Wheeling after scoring 29 goals and 66 points in 2014-15.
- Cody Wydo – Wydo started from the bottom of the depth chart last season and worked his way up to becoming one of the top rookies in the league by the time it was all said and done. After being a healthy scratch throughout much of the early portion of the season, he caught fire and finished with 23 goals and 50 points, and added 12 more goals and 21 points during the playoff run.
- Jordan Kwas – A waiver claim in the second half, Kwas became a vital part of the Nailers getting in the post season then the playoff run, putting up seven goals in 33 regular season games, and adding four more in the playoffs including scoring in each of Wheeling’s game sevens.
- Brett Stern – Coming off one of the more impressive rookies seasons I’ve seen a defenseman have at this level, he’ll look to build on seven goals and 24 points, as well as a plus-5 rating a season ago.
- Danny Fick – A lot like Cody Wydo, Fick started from the bottom of the pile and developed into an integral part of the Nailers run. The difference is Fick’s contributions did not often show up on the score sheet. Fick became an extremely effective shut-down defender in the post season and figured out the physical side of the pro game in the process. His performance in the post season is why I made sure to include him on this list.
Who’s Gone? Notable Departures:
- Shane Bakker – One of the biggest developments of the whole off-season occurred only a little less than a month ago when Wheeling traded Bakker to the Atlanta Gladiators for future considerations. He had been with the team for three seasons, serving as the captain for the last two, while setting the team record for playoff games played on the run to the finals. He is currently with the AHL’s Providence Bruins.
- Riley Brace – Brace led the Nailers in scoring last year with 26 goals and 67 points, and added another five goals – including a game seven overtime winner at home against Reading for one of the most memorable moments of the run – and 27 points in the playoffs. He is playing for the Ravensburg Tower Stars in Germany.
- Zack Torquato – For the first time in five years, Zack Torquato is not a Wheeling Nailer. He wound up just shy of setting the team record for all-time games played and is playing for Cortina SG in Italy.
- Paul Cianfrini – Next to Torquato, Cianfrini was the longest tenured Nailer, having been with the team since 2012. He headed to Hungary.
- Mathew Maione – The reigning ECHL Defenseman of the Year, Maione put up 44 points with the Nailers after being acquired in a trade from the Brampton Beast and 54 total, while adding another 23 points in the playoffs. He is playing for Banska Bystrica HC 05 in Slovakia.
- Darryl Lloyd – Heading into his 13th season as a pro, veteran Lloyd comes to the Nailers after spending the past five seasons with the Belfast Giants in England, and fans will remember him from his days with the Kalamazoo Wings before that. A former teammate of Christian’s, the Nailers coach has been full of praise for the 32-year-old throughout the pre-season.
- Nick Sorkin – Sorkin comes to Wheeling having spent last season in Sweden, where he scored 15 goals, and the season before that spent his entire rookie season in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
- Josh Shalla – Acquired via an off-season trade with the Toledo Walleye as the future considerations from a past deal, Shalla comes to the Nailers having been a 20 goal scorer twice in four ECHL seasons split between Toledo and the Cincinnati Cyclones.
- Doug Carr – There will be a new man between the pipes for the Nailers this season, and he is 27-year-old, fourth-year pro Doug Carr, who put up 10 wins, a 2.77 GAA, and .915 SV% last season with the Manchester Monarchs.
Movin’ On Up (Players most likely to get called up):
Army (who spent most of last season in the AHL) and Sorkin (who was an AHL regular two years ago) stand out in this category, while I also would throw Wydo in that mix this season as well.
I think the Nailers are starting the season with a talented team, and should get off to a good start. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for call-ups to change that, and how subsequently the rookie coaches can fill the holes and adapt. That said, I would be surprised if the Nailers did not make the playoffs and/or contend for the division title.
Let us know how you think the Nailers will do in their Silver Anniversary season by voting in our poll question!