WHEELING, WV – The 2017-18 Wheeling Nailers missed the playoffs for the second straight season. A below average penalty kill, inability to win defensive games, and faltering down the stretch lead to Jeff Christian’s contract ending as soon as the season came to a close. In May, the Nailers introduced Mark Dennehy as the 17th head coach in team history. However, his tenure would end abruptly as he accepted the job as head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Devils on August 1. A week later, the team introduced former Boston University associate coach, Mike Bavis, as the 18th man behind the bench for the black and gold. This is Bavis’ first stint as a head coach at any level. Wheeling changed divisions this season, as they moved from the Eastern Conference’s North Division to the Western Conference’s Central Division.
Nuts and Bolts:
Record: 35-28-8-1 (79 pts)
Division/Conference Finish: 5th North Division/7th Eastern Conference
Record vs Division: 18-13-4-1
Record vs Conference: 26-15-5-1
Goals For Per Game: 3.44 6th ECHL
Goals Against Per Game: 3.40 18th ECHL
Power Play: 56-291 19.2% 3rd ECHL
Penalty Kill: 230-285 80.7% 21st ECHL
Can Wheeling raise the penalty kill out of the league basement? In the past two seasons, slow starts on the penalty kill have caused the Nailers to finish near the bottom of the ECHL (18th in 2017-18, 27th in 2016-17) in overall penalty kill. Against the Central Division, this could be key to winning games.
Can the defense and goalies keep the Nailers competitive in low scoring games? In 2017-18, Wheeling won two games in which the offense scored less than four goals. Goaltenders also had one shutout all of last season (Adam Morrison March 21 vs Worcester). Again, limiting the opposition scoring will be huge in winning in the Central Division
Can Mike Bavis find the success he had at Boston University with Wheeling? In his first opportunity as the head coach of a team, Bavis will look to use lessons learned from Jack Parker at BU to return the Nailers to a contending team.
“if we’re fast, if we’re attacking, if we’re taking the game to our opponents, people are going to like watching a team like that. We want to be in a position to win a championship.” -Mike Bavis
Nick Saracino – The second-year player looks to improve on his 37-point effort from a season ago. He showed flashes throughout the season that he could contribute and looks to build upon that in Wheeling.
Zac Lynch – The Pittsburgh native looks to continue to provide an offensive spark to his team. With 40 goals and 40 assists (80 pts) in two seasons, Lynch looks to be primed for a breakout campaign for Wheeling.
Renars Krastenbergs – The young Latvian is a wild card for this team. From the looks in the preseason opener against Cincinnati, he has great hockey sense and seems to go where the play is heading.
Gone but Not Forgotten:
Reid Gardiner – Had an outstanding rookie season for Wheeling. He lit the lamp 30 times and chipped in another 27 helpers for 57 points in 58 games. His offensive production was a huge part of what success Wheeling did have. Gardiner is currently on the Kalamazoo Wings roster having signed with the Utica Comets (AHL) in the offseason.
Cody Wydo – Wydo finished his third season with Wheeling in 2017-18. In 53 contests, he racked up 56 points. Another key offensive player, Wydo’s production will be missed as he has taken his game to Europe this season.
Kevin Schulze – Leading the defensive corps in scoring for the second straight season, Schulze was a key piece to Wheeling’s offensive firepower. Scoring 31 points, the 5-foot-9 defenseman was a fast skater and would join the offensive rush when called upon. Schulze has gone to Europe, but was extended a qualifying offer from the Nailers.
Sin Bin Swami Says:
If Wheeling can play the way Bavis wants them to, and the defense buckles down on opponents not allowing them to have space to create, limit the penalties against while improving on the penalty kill, this team can make a deep playoff run. However, if they get into penalty trouble of struggle on the kill and defensively, in general, this could be a long season in the Friendly City. Look for them to be successful in those areas and make a playoff return and a second-round appearance if not further is not completely out to the realm of possibility for this squad.
What Say You?