Riley Armstrong, younger brother of Colby, is in his second year as the assistant coach of the Wheeling Nailers. This week, at the midway point of the season, I took a moment to speak with Armstrong about the players who have impressed him the most this season, their goals for the second half of the season, and more.
Q: The Nailers' power play has been the top of the league all season, even with a lot of key players moving up and down. What do you think has made the power play so consistently successful?
A: "I think some of the guys that have been called up or not injured have really taken it over. With their consistent play on the power play, it's helped keep it there. Something else, if you were to dig into the stats, it's also nobody's penalty kill is really bad. If you look at the whole league, it's from 91 to 81. Like the whole league is right in it. So everyone's power play isn't like jumping off the wall, and I think maybe that's why we've stayed at No. 1. I think maybe we dropped to No. 2 a little bit, but that's why we've stayed there even if we've gone seven games without scoring a power play goal. The cushion we gave ourselves at the start of the year has kept us in the top two at the halfway point right now."
Q: Who has really impressed you or stood out to you in the first half of this season?
A: "For forwards I would say Cam Brown. He's a rookie out of University of Maine. For a rookie in the league it usually takes a little bit for them to adjust and get out of college hockey where they only play two games on weekends. Now he's playing a full 72-game schedule. But he's really adjusted well, he's a good pro, takes care of himself, and he might be leading the league in rookie scoring right now?"
[At publication, Brown is second among rookies, two points behind Cincinnati's Justin Danforth.]
Q: What about some of the defensemen?
A: Kevin Schulze. He was here last year as well, he had 60 points last year. He was hurt for a lot of (this) year, he got a concussion, I think seven games into the season. So he hasn't played the full year, but when we didn't have him back there on defense, you could tell a hole was missing. Since he's been back, he's such a good skater, he runs the power play. I personally don't think he should be in the ECHL, just due to the fact of how well he skates, and how he makes plays and sees the ice."
Q: How good was it to see Cody Wydo get rewarded with the All-Star Game, and a call-up to Wilkes-Barre, after all the time he's put in in Wheeling?
A: "If you look at all the goals and the numbers he's scored since he came out of Robert Morris, he could have probably even have scored more goals. I think through the course of the three years, he's had 10-game slumps where he didn't even score a goal. Then he would score 10 in a row, then he would go on another slump again. For him to put up the numbers, I think coming in this year he worked out really hard in the summertime, he finally got an American League two-way contract, so he got a little praise there coming into this season. I think that Cody's been our most consistent player through this whole entire year. Getting called up, he comes down, I think he played one or two games, he came right in and just took off right from where he left. That just shows how focused, committed, he is, and it's just awesome that he gets the All-Star Game and he hasn't even been playing here the past three, four weeks. He's been in Wilkes-Barre. I think that speaks volumes of Clark Donatelli, letting him go to the All-Star Game, even though he's in Wilkes-Barre, to let him go enjoy that. It's just more confidence, it gets him going, and it's awesome."
Q: You're in your second year coaching professional hockey, is there anything that's really surprised you that you've learned while coaching?
A: "[Laughs.] Well as a player, you usually come to the rink and do your thing, maybe work out, ride the bike after practice. After a game you usually make your shake and then you head home. With coaching, there's a lot of preparation that goes into it, even before games or practices. Then after games, it's cutting the video, getting it ready for the next game, getting guys clips so they can see things that they can get better at. But the biggest thing about the ECHL that I didn't really see the whole picture before I came here, was like the per diem, the apartments. You're kind of managing the whole entire team and the players. You know, like if something goes wrong at the apartments, I get a call, and then I gotta call around to try to get the apartments fixed. I'm a father to two kids at home, and then sometimes a dad to 25 of them at the rink."
Q: You're not much older than some of them, you last played in this league in 2015-16, not long ago at all. Do you feel like maybe you're able to relate to the guys more?
A: "Yeah, definitely. I know exactly what they're going through. I know some of them who are rookies, when I was a rookie, I know what I went through. I can tell them those scenarios. But also for the older guys, like the Nick Sorkins, the Garrett Meurs. I've been where they are in their careers. I talk to them, as we're skating around the ice or showing video, and sometimes it's not just about hockey. It's about what you're going to do after hockey. Because, as much as you want, you're not going to play hockey forever. And there's a time to move on, or go over to Europe, or do that kind of thing. I've been at that crossroad myself playing, whether it's staying in North America or going to Europe. I picked going to Europe with my family, and it was awesome. But I feel at my age, and when I stepped away from playing, I really drew a line of being a coach and not a player anymore. The line is, that I can't go hang out with the players. Even though just coming out of a game, I like being around the locker room, I was a locker room guy, and now I draw the line of I have a different role now, and I want to make these players better and hopefully get more of them to the American Hockey League or to the highest level that they could possibly play."
Q: How good of a relationship does the team have with Pittsburgh? Do they have people down there often, or work with the guys that aren't on NHL contracts?
A: "This year I think it's been a little more difficult with people coming down. Last year and the year before, Mark Recchi was always coming down. But with Recchi's new role as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh, he can't always come down. The other player development guys, they're based out of Boston and Toronto. So for them to just scoot down like Recchi could, it isn't exactly right in their backyard. I know the player development guys, they call our players and they talk to them over the phone. Most of the time it's not necessarily just coming down and working with a skillset, something like that, but it's more of, they're frustrated, or they have questions of 'How come I didn't get called up?' or whatever is going through their minds. They kind of handle that from that side of it, but for myself, if a player needs to work on, you know, picking up rims on the boards or their defensive zone, I think that's where I relate to them. You have the patience to sit there and work with them for an hour after practice if you want to stay on the ice, and work on something. I'm always willing to do that, and as long as the guys are willing to put the work in, I'm always there to help them out."
Q: In a roster move like the Hunter Fejes trade, does Pittsburgh have any input, or is that all you guys?
A: "That's mostly just our office. No one from Pittsburgh says no or yes, or whatever. With trades, I'm not on the phone calling coaches, that's more Jeff (Christian) that does all that kind of stuff. Being an assistant coach, I don't even talk to Bill Guerin or anything like that. Jeff communicates with Bill Guerin. So I don't even know what they talk about or what's going on in that sense, I just come to the rink and do my stuff."
Q: At the midway point of the season, the Nailers are hovering around a playoff spot. What do they have to do in the second half of the season to really make that push?
A: "Geez, there's actually a lot of things. No. 1, I think in the last little bit here, we've given teams three-goal leads, two-goal leads in the first period. It's always hard to always fight back in games. For our team, even just in this past weekend, the clawing back in games when we've been down, I think it takes a lot out of us. With having 35 games left, this is when we need our push to solidify that playoff spot. I don't want it to wear on the team of us always having to fight back and claw back in the games. We need to come out early, have better starts in our games in the second half. And also win games at home, which is huge. But also we need to start winning on the road as well. That's what I think will make us a playoff team, but also when it comes to the first and second rounds of the playoffs, for us being able to have the confidence that we can win on the road, will be really big."
A: "When I've come in for meetings, I see Nick Sorkin by the iPod, and actually Dan Milan. The music that comes out of the room? I would have to say I'm thankful that I'm across the hall in my office. But whatever gets them fired up, they can continue to keep rocking out back there."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Jan. 10: vs. Adirondack, 6-3 win
• Jan. 12: vs. Norfolk, 4-3 win
• Jan. 14: vs. Norfolk, 4-2 win
• Wilkes-Barre/Scranton re-assigned Wydo to Wheeling to participate in the ECHL All-Star Classic. He placed second in the Fastest Skater Competition with a time of 13.04 seconds.
• The Nailers acquired forward J.C. Campagna, 24, completing the Fejes trade from last week. "J.C. Campagna is a good rookie, who is producing at almost a point-per-game pace, and plays with a good mix of size and skill," Jeff Christian said in a team release. "We are excited to get him, and he has a nice local tie, as he lives in the Columbus area. We have already gotten a lot from the trade with Orlando, and we are happy to acquire J.C." Campagna has six goals, 17 assists in 27 games.
• Forward Garrett Meurs had two goals and four assists this week, bringing his season totals to 15 goals, 21 assists in 36 games. He's averaging a point per game.
• Defenseman Ross McMullan is really picking things up. After not even recording his first point of the season until Dec. 9, he had his first goal of the season on Jan. 7, then added another on Jan. 10.
• The Nailers are riding a four-game win streak, their longest of the season.
• After this week's games, the Nailers sit third in the tight North Division with a 21-15-3-0 record. They're three points out of first place, while also only in a playoff spot by two points.
• The Nailers have a tough week ahead with a three-in-three on the road. Friday they'll face the division-leading Manchester Monarchs (22-13-3-1), and will play the Worcester Railers (15-16-3-2) on Saturday and Sunday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Defenseman Dan Milan scored his fourth goal of the season on Saturday.
WHEELING FUN THING
The team will be hosting '90s Night on Feb. 2, featuring Alfonso Ribeiro from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". Milan and new acquisition Michael Turner worked on a promotional video for the theme night that should be released soon:
90's Night is less than a month away. Dan Milan, Michael Turner, and Corey Klug showed off their dance moves in today's commercial shoot. pic.twitter.com/4vRMXS0sxF
— WWWWheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 11, 2018
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