CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – The Wheeling Nailers opened training camp Monday afternoon at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the practice facility of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Head Coach Derek Army led a roster of 23 onto the ice. With a nucleus of familiar faces, the Nailers are preparing to start the 30th season in Wheeling in just a few short days.
“It’s really nice, it’s been a long summer, it feels like, so it’s great to be back,” Army stated after practice.
The players showed good energy as they took the ice. After having an entire summer off (3-4 months), practice didn’t start as crisp as it could have, but Army was enthused.
“I was happy you could see the pace and the crispness picked up as the practice went on, which is obviously a good sign. But the most important was guys had energy, and they were talking, which is the most important thing.”
The last few Nailers teams were smaller in size, but Army worked to change that by signing players with size during this offseason. Along with the size, the team didn’t sacrifice speed, as most of the players on the ice today showed they could skate and play physically.
“We wanted to get bigger. I thought we last year went into some buildings and got pushed around a little bit with our lack of size at times and experience,” Army said. “And you see the teams that win are big. It’s no secret Tampa had a big blue line, Washington was big, St. Louis was big when they won it. The recent [Stanley] Cup winners; it’s a copycat league and for us, we felt in our division we’re going to go into every building and not be pushed around.”
As the roster continues to take shape leading into the season, goaltending always plays a big part. The Nailers open camp with Louis-Phillip Guindon in the starter’s net after an impressive rookie season last year.
“LP is a guy that I loved at the end of the year. The guys loved him. He’s a do anything, take any amount of shots, no complaints; he’s a guy who you want on the back end and for me, I was excited to have him back. He’s a guy you can build around him,” Army said of Guindon.
As for a second goaltender, the Nailers have Michael Barrett in camp and are waiting to see what the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins do and expecting to see one goaltender sent down.
From a leadership standpoint, the Nailers have players the staff will rely on to set the example. Players like Matt Alfaro and Patrick Watling, both of whom are set to begin their second season in Wheeling, lead the way.
“You just try to be a pro every day,” Watling said. “There’s a lot of new people coming in every day and it’s their first-year pro or being their fourth or fifth-year pro, you just gotta take it day-by-day and show them the ropes of being a professional hockey player. And ownership will be leaning on some second and third-year guys.”
Alfaro added: “[I] really just try to lead by example, I’m not really the most vocal guy in the room. I know Coach Army is kinda leaning on the second-year guys to be leaders and I’m one of them. I think I can show them what it takes to play a full-year pro and how to be successful.”
The Nailers will host the Fort Wayne Komets in preseason action this Friday night at 7:05 pm inside Wesbanco Arena in Wheeling.
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