Wheeling has to get creative this time of year.
Any sorts of injuries or callups by the big club in Pittsburgh have a trickle-down effect. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton calls up players from Wheeling, and when that is combined with the Nailers losing their own players to injury or deals with other AHL teams, it leads to Wheeling's roster looking pretty depleted by February.
In addition to signing replacement players out of the SPHL, a team in this position will fill holes by moving its existing players around to new positions.
One player who is playing a new position is Ross McMullan, now playing forward after being a defenseman for his entire career.
McMullan is hardly one to complain, and seems to just have a great attitude about anything that comes at him. He really is enjoying his new role, though.
"You know? It's been fun. It's been a lot of fun," he told me. "The first couple of games were an adjustment, I think, like anything. I think I enjoy it though, quite a bit. You get a lot more chances on net, and it's just a change of pace. Learning new things is fun, and it's been great."
He's been able to slide into his new role with ease, and picked up some points along the way. While he hasn't scored any goals in his short time as a forward yet (although he scored two as a defenseman earlier in the season), he's picked up a few assists from setting up his teammates:
Does McMullan have a preference now between playing as a forward and a defenseman, though?
"You know what? I don't know," he laughed. "I don't actually know. There are a lot of aspects to forward that I really do enjoy. There's responsibility with every position, but you have a lot more chance at glory with forward ... 'D', you kind of have to stay even keel, and it's more about your consistency that makes you a good defenseman. Whereas forward, of course consistency counts, but I've enjoyed the randomness some times of it. I couldn't tell you, I might want to try forward."
At 6-foot-4, McMullan is able to use his size to put himself between the defenders and the puck. He might not be as skilled as some of his linemates, but he finds ways to make it work in his new position.
"I don't have the hands of a Freddie Tiffels, so I'm not able to beat guys one-on-one as he can," he said. "But I'm good on the forecheck and I'm good when we've been in their zone for an extended period of time. I guess I'm okay at possessing the puck and waiting for a man to be open. And I can shoot the puck, if I get a chance."
McMullan has been known to get physical at times, and has also dropped the gloves five times over the past two seasons. While it might not be a big part of his game now, he enjoys doing it.
"I think fighting is a rush," he said. "Being a bigger guy, it's not as easy to get hurt when you fight. It's a fun aspect of the game for me, it's obviously more of a dangerous one for the ones that do it on a regular basis. I think with our team having a few other tougher guys or bigger presences, I think we've had to fight a little less. We're lucky to have a guy in Jeremy (Beirnes) who is an intimidating presence, even at the height he's at. He takes care of us very well, in more ways than one."
Wheeling has a few players still on the roster that were part of their exciting run to the Kelly Cup Finals in 2016. McMullan is roommates with two of those defensemen -- Danny Fick and Kevin Schulze -- and he thinks their experience has been helpful to his own development as a player.
"I think I've gotten better just living with and learning from the guys who aren't too different from me, and are having success," he said. "I think those guys definitely benefit me, I'm around them all the time and have been for the past two years and you kind of emulate what they do. You learn from each other. Me learning more so from them."
After winning the Community Service Award last season, McMullan is still very active in the Wheeling community this season. McMullan was in both Salvation Army outings featured in this video:
He especially likes the work he's able to do with the children in the community.
"The fist bumps, any time you can go out of your way to say 'Hello' or 'What's up?' or 'How's school?' or just say a few words to kids, it goes a long way," he said. "I think they think about that, I did at least, for the next week. Obviously, helping those less fortunate than you is a big deal, but I think it's very easy for us to touch the lives of some kids. It's beneficial to them and it's easy for all of us to do. I think that's a very rewarding part of being a minor-league athlete or any level of athlete. I just enjoy that."
I spoke to McMullan earlier in December to get some insight from him, a Vegas native, before the Penguins' first game against the Golden Knights. At the time, the Golden Knights were his pick to win the Stanley Cup.
Are they still his pick to win it all? I asked, and he had some analysis to share.
"They're still my pick!" he laughed. "They just made a trade for Tomas Tatar, the other day Ryan Reaves, I think both good pickups. Tatar, maybe not having the success he should be having, I think he might have some of that success in Vegas, at least I hope so."
"My only issue is that they've been playing their hearts out every game," he continued. "They've been playing in top gear most of the season. My worry is that a team like the Sharks or somebody in the West comes in, and they start playing in another gear, I wonder if Vegas has another gear. You need that other gear in the playoffs because they're so intense."
McMullan's confidence in his team in Wheeling and his hometown team in Vegas is clear, though.
"After we win the Kelly Cup I would love to be able to go home and watch them at the T-Mobile Arena myself ... At least make the parade."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Feb. 21: at Kalamazoo, 6-5 overtime loss
• Feb. 25: at Adirondack, 3-2 overtime loss
• Wheeling signed two players out of Division III SUNY-Potsdam after their season ended. They added forward Dylan Vander Esch, who tallied 62 goals and 39 assists in his 100 college games. They also inked defenseman Kyle Thacker, who recorded eight goals and 33 assists in 91 games with SUNY-Potsdam.
• The biggest news on Monday for Wheeling was the return of former captain and fan favorite Derek Army. Army, who has spent part of every season since 2013-14 in Wheeling, was on an AHL deal with the Milwaukee Admirals, and was traded to the Tuscon Roadrunners on Monday. Tuscon reassigned Army to the ECHL, and since the Nailers still own his ECHL rights, Army was sent back to Wheeling.
• The Nailers traded Jaynen Rissling, nephew of Gary Rissling, to the Indy Fuel for Nolan Descoteaux, Andrew Schmit and Stephen Collins. Collins was then traded to Orlando.
• Wheeling released SPHL players Nick Schneider, Sean Gammage, Bryan Arneson, Ryan Marcuz, Matt Harrington, and Anthony Calabrese.
• After this week, the Nailers remain in fourth place in the North Division.
• The Nailers (28-22-6-0) will continue their long series of road trips with visits to the division-leading Manchester Monarchs (33-17-3-2) on Wednesday, and the Worcester Railers (24-22-4-3) on Friday and Saturday. Wheeling holds the last North Division playoff spot by a seven-point lead over Worcester, so these weekend games will be crucial for solidifying a spot.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Tiffels scored the only two goals in Sunday's loss, and the kid belongs back in the AHL:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Colin Stevens' big sliding save on a rebound chance kept it close in Kalamazoo. Even though Wheeling took the loss in overtime, Stevens made an incredible 46 saves on 52 shots:
WHEELING FUN THING
The guys have to help out with the equipment in Wheeling:
We have arrived in Kalamazoo. Time to unpack the gear. pic.twitter.com/mzi5VwvhM1
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) February 21, 2018
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