It didn't take long for Kevin Schulze to find his footing in the ECHL.
Breaking into the league last season as a free agent signing out of the University of Wisconsin, the defenseman transitioned seamlessly into the professional game. His 60 points (13 goals, 47 assists) in 68 games led the team, and was the most productive season for a rookie defenseman in Nailers history.
"It was great. Entering the year I didn't expect that much," he laughed, telling me about his rookie season. "But it was a nice surprise to say the least."
The start of his sophomore season wasn't as ideal. Sidelined with a concussion 12 games into the season, 24 year-old Schulze missed over a month of game action.
"It almost felt like the beginning of the season again, to be honest," he said about returning to the Nailers' lineup. "I missed about five weeks or so. It felt good to get back into it, I felt a little out of shape at first. But after a couple of games I felt right back into things."
Schulze picked up where he left off last season, and has tallied four goals and 17 assists in 29 games.
"When we didn't have him back there on defense, you could tell a hole was missing," assistant coach Riley Armstrong told me of Schulze's absence. "Since he's been back, he's such a good skater, he runs the power play."
The Nailers power play, at 22.7 percent, is ranked No. 1 in the league. Per James Peklicz, with Schulze out of the lineup, the power play is only 6-for-49, or 12.2 percent. While Schulze himself only has two power play goals on the season, his strong vision and playmaking abilities are what help make the power play so successful.
In addition to his passing and the way he sees the ice, Schulze's main strength is his skating. A self-proclaimed "undersized defenseman" at 5 foot 10, Schulze said that he's been able to use his speed to his advantage throughout his career.
"I personally don't think he should be in the ECHL, just due to the fact of how well he skates," Armstrong said of Schulze's speed.
Schulze was recalled to Wilkes-Barre after Wheeling's season ended early last year. He wasn't there for long, only playing one regular season game and practicing as a black ace during Wilkes-Barre's short-lived playoff run. Still, his short time in the AHL made an impression on what it takes to make the next step.
"Just how all the players conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis," he said of the differences he noticed in the AHL. "Even with practice, they come ready to battle in practice, and how they prepare for practice everyday."
Schulze feels that his speed and overall game fits the Penguins' style of play well, and with Pittsburgh's history of moving young college free agent prospects through the system, he feels like he has a path ahead of him.
One of the players he watched move through the system was his friend and former high school teammate at Hill-Murray School, Jake Guentzel.
"I actually grew up playing with him in the summers a couple of times," Schulze said. "I've kind of known him through all my life, so once he got the call up and did so well I was really happy for him."
"We're all here, hoping to move up," he said. "Hopefully, I can be that next guy."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Jan. 19: at Manchester, 3-2 loss
• Jan. 20: at Worcester, 5-2 win
• Jan. 21: at Worcester, 4-2 win
• Defenseman Jeff Taylor and forwards Freddie Tiffels and Cody Wydo were reassigned from Wilkes-Barre to Wheeling on Friday. Wilkes-Barre also released goaltender Adam Morrison from his tryout contract, sending him back to Wheeling.
• Taylor and Tiffels were recalled back to Wilkes-Barre on Monday. Taylor had two goals and an assist during his three-game stint, while Tiffels scored an assist in each of the three games.
• Goaltender Colin Stevens was loaned to the AHL's Binghamton Devils. In seven games with Wheeling, Stevens recorded a 3.57 goals against average and .898 save percentage. His recall leaves Wheeling with Morrison and Will King between the pipes.
• The Nailers traded forward Colin Murray to the Kalamazoo Wings in exchange for future considerations. Murray only played nine games in Wheeling after being signed out of the SPHL. He recorded one assist as a Nailer.
• Forward Garrett Meurs signed a professional tryout contract with the AHL's Manitoba Moose. Meurs recorded 15 goals and 21 assists in 37 games with Wheeling, and led the Nailers with 96 penalty minutes. Meurs was scoreless in his first game with Manitoba.
• Reid Gardiner had five goals in three games this week, including a hat trick on Saturday.
• Cam Brown has a goal in each of his last six games, and points in his last seven games.
• After this week’s games, the Nailers improved to second place in the North Division with a record of 23-16-3-0. They are three points out of first place in the division.
• The Nailers have four games in five days this week, all at home. They'll host the Kalamazoo Wings (21-13-2-2) on Wednesday, the Reading Royals (22-18-2-0) on Friday, and the division-leading Manchester Monarchs (24-14-3-1) on Saturday and Sunday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Troy Josephs scored this goal on Sunday, picking up the rebound from Dylan Zink's shot:
Gardiner scored this goal on Sunday:
WHEELING FUN THING
Here's Zach Tolkinen aggressively congratulating Gardiner after Gardiner's hat trick on Saturday:
Zach Tolkinen has fun with Reid Gardiner after his Hat Trick empty-netter. Tolkinen has been one of those unsung heroes for Wheeling this season. Tremendous pickup in the offseason. pic.twitter.com/Hw155vTGNN
— James Peklicz (@Nailers_Off_Ice) January 21, 2018
To continue reading, log into your account: