Reid Gardiner's start in professional hockey wasn't typical, but his experiences prepared him for the success he's having to start this ECHL season with the Nailers.
Gardiner, 21, played for his hometown Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL for four seasons. He was never a flashy player, just a strong, physical, two-way forward. He was invited to the Pittsburgh Penguins' rookie tournament in London, Ontario, in September 2016, and while he did not score, his strong two-way play impressed coaches and earned him an AHL contract with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
His first taste at professional hockey only lasted 23 games, however, before he was sent back to juniors for his final year of eligibility and joined the WHL's Kelowna Rockets.
"It was kind of mutual," Gardiner told me of the move. "I wasn't playing a whole bunch, and I had the opportunity to go back to a junior team where I felt like I could win."
He put up 18 goals and 19 assists in his 28 regular season games with Kelowna and an impressive 15 goals with 13 assists in 17 games during their its road to the Western Conference final.
When his final season of junior eligibility was over, he knew he wanted to re-sign with Wilkes-Barre.
"It helped me a bunch," he said of his time with the Penguins. "I think kind of going there, getting my first taste of pro, I kind of learned from older guys. It was good for my career, my development."
Gardiner impressed at Wilkes-Barre's training camp prior to the current season, but was re-assigned to Wheeling because of the AHL club's forward depth.
"I want to try to bring that down to Wheeling as much as I can," he said of the experience. "I learned new stuff every day up in Wilkes last year, and I'm still trying to learn stuff down here in Wheeling every day as well."
He's learning quickly. His team-leading eight goals and 13 points in only eight games earned him ECHL Rookie of the Month for October.
"I thought it was cool. It was cool to get the news," he said of the award. But Gardiner remains humble. "A lot of my success comes from the team, my teammates, specifically my linemates. It was a good month but I just have to continue to do it in November."
His success has continued into November, as he picked up three goals this weekend, one Friday and two Saturday:
He's especially had chemistry with linemate Nick Sorkin, a winger in his second year with the Nailers and one of the team's captains last season. "It's been good," he said of being on Sorkin's line. "Obviously he's a big guy and creates a lot of space. I try to get him the puck and get open every time it's on my stick. It's pretty neat playing with a guy like that." Sorkin's three goals and nine assists in eight games rank him third on the team in points.
Gardiner's main goal for the season is to work on his speed. "Sometimes I kind of get my feet caught not moving," he said. "I think always just playing fast, playing heads-up, is just what I want to improve on."
Playing in Pittsburgh's system will allow him to do just that. Playing a fast game is something Mike Sullivan and Wilkes-Barre coach Clark Donatelli emphasize. Same with the Nailers' coach, Jeff Christian.
"I think just playing a fast team game has brought us success early in the year," Gardiner said. "Everyone from the defensemen to the goalies to the forwards are all on the same page and want to play a fast game, be a fast team."
Wheeling's WesBanco Arena forces the team to play fast. At only 188 feet long, the surface is 12 feet shorter than the standard hockey rink. The neutral zone is much smaller, and as a result, players need to think fast and make plays quicker.
[caption id="attachment_469682" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Reid Gardiner makes his way through the fist bump line after a goal. -- ZACK RAWSON / WHEELING NAILERS[/caption]
Gardiner is enjoying his early success in the ECHL, but he has bigger aspirations.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said of his time in Wheeling. "But at the same time, everybody wants to make it to the NHL, I think. For me, it's going to go AHL, then hopefully the NHL, if those opportunities present itself. But for now I'm just taking it day-by-day and focusing on becoming a better player everyday."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Nov. 3: vs. Cincinnati, 4-3 overtime loss
• Nov. 4: at Indy, 5-1 win
• The Nailers made two trades this week, sending Robert Morris alum Daniel Leavens to the Allen Americans for defenseman Jaynen Rissling (nephew of former Penguin Gary Rissling). Leavens was scoreless in three games for Wheeling this season, and Rissling had one goal and two assists in two games with Allen. Defenseman Benjamin Dieudé-Fauvel was traded to the Wichita Thunder in exchange for future considerations.
• Kenny Ryan, Derek Army, and Gardiner all scored on Friday, evening the score after three separate one-goal deficits. Goaltender Will King took the loss in overtime after coming in in relief of Sean Maguire, who was pulled after allowing two goals on six shots.
• The Nailers cruised to a 5-0 lead early in the second period Saturday, with goals coming from Kevin Schulze, Gardiner (2), Sorkin, and Ryan. Maguire earned the win after being pulled the night before. The Fuel's only goal came on this misplay by Maguire:
• The score sheet wasn't the only place the Nailers dominated the Fuel. Dalton Reum dropped the gloves with the Fuel's Garrett Clarke, and it wasn't even close:
• It was a great week for the Nailers' special teams. They entered the weekend with the league's best power play at 33.3 percent and the league's worst penalty kill at 65.4 percent. They scored four power play goals on six opportunities in this week's games. Their penalty kill was near-perfect, allowing only one goal on 14 opportunities. After the weekend, the power play rose to 38.5 percent and the penalty kill rose to 75 percent. If you need some perspective for that power play percentage...
Wheeling's 38.5% Power Play success rate is tops in ALL of North American pro hockey &
Major Canadian Jrs. (NHL/AHL/ECHL/SPHL/OHL/QMJHL/WHL)
— James Peklicz (@Nailers_Off_Ice) November 5, 2017
I asked Gardiner why Wheeling's power play is so successful this early on. "I think we're all on the same page, we all know what we're doing and we try to keep it simple," he explained. "I think we don't try to overcomplicate things, just kind of get pucks in traffic to the net, I think that's the goal, to score."
• The Nailers, now 5-1-2-0, will have their first three-in-three of the season this weekend. They'll have a home-and-home series with the Toledo Walleye (6-2-1-0) on Friday and Saturday, then host the Norfolk Admirals (3-7-0-0) on Sunday. Friday's home game will be the team's Marvel Night, with players wearing superhero-themed jerseys. Sunday afternoon's home game will conclude with a postgame skate with the team for fans.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Ryan scored his sixth goal of the season on Friday, a one-timer assisted by Cam Brown and Cody Wydo:
Ryan also scored this power play goal on Saturday, set up by Sorkin and Schulze:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Aside from his one mishap, Maguire was solid in his start Saturday. This series of saves protected the Nailers' four-goal lead:
WHEELING FUN THING
Some of the Nailers played catch in a gas station parking lot when their bus stopped on the way to Indy. Road trip life:
A quick stop on the way to Indy, and the boys are loosening up with a game of catch. pic.twitter.com/Cd7UPeodHH
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) November 4, 2017
JUST THE STATS
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