WHEELING, W.Va. – For the first time in 12 seasons, the Wheeling Nailers finished the 2019-20 season with a sub-.500 record. The Nailers struggled away from Wesbanco Arena posting a 9-17-3 record away from the ice surface in Nail City, while on home ice, the Nailers were 15-13-2-0.
The Nailers were however on pace to break the single season-low mark in penalty minutes for a season in ECHL history having only being assessed 509 PIM in 59 games (8.63 PIM/game). Though posting the lowest PIM total in the league, the penalty kill only had an 81.2% kill rate (151/186). The power play scored on 15.1% of its chances (29/192) with massive cold streaks. Both special teams units were in the bottom half of the league with the penalty kill ranked 17th and the power play 23rd.
Final Record: 24-30-5-0 – 53 points (6th Central, 12th Western Conference)
Leading Scorer: Cam Brown 41 points (18G, 23A)
Best Netminder: Jordan Ruby 7-7-3, 2.94 GAA, .910 save percentage
High Point: Taking nine of a possible 12 points at home during a six-game homestand to raise the overall record above .500 to 21-19-5-0.
Low Point: Losing five straight in the division during a stretch in from late February into early March.
Highlight of Season: Three game sweep in Rapid City Dec 11-14th. December saw the Nailers play the Rapid City Rush for the first time. Wheeling played three games at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and won all three in front of strong play by Ruby in the first two games and Andrew D’Agostini in the third game. Wheeling won by scores of 4-3, 3-1, and 4-2. Ruby stopped 55 of 58 shots faced in the first two games and D’Agostini stopped 26 of 28 as Wheeling saw Christopher Brown score three times on the trip as well as Captain Nick Saracino picking up a pair of game-winning goals on Wednesday and Friday.
Surprises/Disappointments: The biggest disappointment this year was the roster had a fair amount of players who would be relied on if the Nailers were to go into the postseason. However, injuries to Saracino and forward Myles Powell saw them both miss significant time as would be limited to 31 games and Powell 19 games. Both were thought to be potential major contributors on offense before their respective injuries.
Another disappointment was the play of Yushiroh Hirano. Hirano had an impressive rookie campaign in 2018-19 and was expected to build on it. Hirano was mired in a slump and only posted 13 goals and 22 assists in 52 games this season after 19 goals and 38 assists in 67 games last season. He was not the offensive factor or defensive presence he was last year as he saw his +/- rating go from a 5 last season to a -23 this year.
If the season continued…how would it have played out?
The Nailers playoff chances took a major blow during the recent slump the team was in as the team from Nail City was on a seven-game losing skid and was 1-9-0-0 in the last 10 when the season was stopped. Being outscored on the year by a 206-163 count the offense was, in a word, stalled for Wheeling. Facing a 10-point deficit with 13 games remaining (6 home, 7 road) hopes for a return to the postseason after a three-year absence were all but gone.
Focus for Offseason
The Wheeling Nailers begin the offseason looking for their fourth head coach since reaching the 2016 Kelly Cup Finals, as Mike Bavis’ contract was not renewed. The goaltending decisions have to be made in the Pittsburgh organization as the majority of the starts went to rookie netminder Alex D’Orio and first-year North American pro, Emil Larmi. The Nailers will need some veteran presence and a bit more grit to compete in a tough ECHL Central Division. Players like Graham Knott and Ryan Scarfo who weren’t afraid to get into the tough areas and go to the net to work for “dirty goals”. Also needed will be the types of defensive players who will work to get pucks outside and keep the slot clear of opposing players in the defensive zone.
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After a tough season, Wheeling will reset and get ready to try for a return to the postseason. 2019-20 was far from an ideal year for the Nailers and the fans of this historic franchise. Hopefully for the fans, the future will hold bright things in this 29th season of hockey in the Upper Ohio Valley. Veteran presence and a bit more grit will be needed and a leader who is tough as nails to lead this team from behind the bench.