Chris Francis has seen a lot in his eight years of professional hockey.
The 28 year-old center has played for five ECHL teams in his career, including stints in more unconventional markets with the now-defunct Las Vegas Wranglers and Alaska Aces. He even spent a season in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, of all places, playing in the Austrian Hockey League.
Francis found his way to Wheeling in January. He was traded from the Quad City Mallards to the Orlando Solar Bears, then flipped to the Nailers in a move that saw Wheeling's then-leading goal-scorer Hunter Fejes shipped out as part of coach Jeff Christian's search for a true center to play in Wheeling.
The adjustment was made easier by his fellow Las Vegas native Ross McMullan.
"When I got traded here, knowing Ross was here, it was an easy adjustment," Francis told me. "It's never easy going to a new team, not knowing anybody, but having Ross here, that was pretty awesome. We skate together every summer, we're always skating together. I see him four to five days a week throughout the whole summer, so it was nice to be able to join the Nailers and have Ross here, he's a great guy."
McMullan was thrilled to have Francis on the team, too. With McMullan, Francis, and Gage Quinney in the organization, the Penguins must be setting some sort of record for the number of Vegas-born players in one system.
"It's wild. It's wild. It's nuts," McMullan said last month. "I used to watch Chris Francis play with the Wranglers in Vegas when they used to play in the East Coast Hockey league way back, like seven years ago. He was always older than me, I looked up to him for his skill. It's wild."
Francis is a product of the Wayne Gretzky effect. His parents, being from California, got caught up in hockey's sudden surge in popularity in the area after Gretzky's trade to the Kings. They got Francis started in roller hockey in Vegas, and he made the switch to ice hockey when he was ten.
Francis eventually made the jump to the WHL, playing for the Portland Winterhawks. He was struggling early on in the 2008-09 season, and was ready to quit the team and join the USHL. The Winterhawks hired Mike Johnston -- yes, that Mike Johnston -- as head coach, and everything turned around for Francis.
"He definitely saved my career when I was younger," Francis said of Johnston. "He was a great coach and he really took the time to develop me as a player. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for his hard work. He's a great coach at that level for all those kids. He's going to make you get better, he's going to develop everybody, and he holds you accountable. He's obviously had a great career for himself, but he definitely turned my career around."
Francis now finds himself on a Nailers team holding onto the last playoff spot in the North Division by a margin of three points. Many of the 54 players who have played in Wheeling this season have been younger and less experienced, and Francis believes that he's able to take on a leadership role to help the team.
"I just try to do my part and make sure everything goes smooth and we all have a good time together, and the atmosphere in the room is always up," he said. "I try to give my advice to guys here and there and be in that leadership role, that older guy that's seen it and done it."
While Wheeling made the Kelly Cup Finals in 2016, only Cody Wydo, Danny Fick, and Derek Army remain from that team. After missing the playoffs last season, many of the current Nailers don't have playoff experience in professional hockey at all.
Francis has found himself in the ECHL playoffs in four of his previous seven ECHL seasons, including a run to the Kelly Cup Finals in 2012, bringing valuable experience to the team.
"It's good for the team that if guys haven't been to the playoffs, they could see what it's like or we could tell them and make sure they're ready to go for how the playoffs are," Francis said of his experience. "This time of year is the most crucial part of the year for any team that's trying to make the playoffs. You just want to be playing your best hockey at this time, and it's good to have guys with playoff experience."
If the Nailers want to secure that playoff spot and make their own run at the Kelly Cup this year, what do they need to do in these next few weeks?
"We just got to make sure we stay calm," Francis said. "We know what we've got to do, we just have to make sure we play the game the right way and we stick to our game plan and not worry about anyone else. We just have to worry about each other in the room and play for each other."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Mar. 16: at Worcester, 6-1 loss
• Mar. 17: at Adirondack, 3-2 overtime loss
• Danny Fick had the lone goal in Friday's loss. Goaltender Adam Morrison was pulled halfway through the game after allowing four goals on 21 shots. Matt O'Connor allowed two goals on 18 shots in relief.
• Morrison started again on Saturday, and made 27 saves on 30 shots. Reid Gardiner and Troy Josephs scored in the loss. Fick recorded an assist, giving him three points in his previous four games. He has four goals and 22 points this season, career highs.
• The Nailers will be moving to the Central Division for the 2018-19 season, joining the Cincinnati Cyclones, Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye, Fort Wayne Komets, and Indy Fuel. The move makes more sense for the Nailers geographically, and will cut down on travel costs. However, the division is more competitive than the one the Nailers are in now.
• Cody Wydo played in his 200th professional game on Saturday -- 188 games with the Nailers, and 12 games with Wilkes-Barre.
• After this week, the Nailers remain in fourth place in the North Division, the final playoff position in the division. Worcester is closing the gap though, trailing the Nailers by only three points.
• The Nailers (31-25-7-1) have three home games this week. The first of which, on Wednesday against the Worcester Railers (30-25-4-3), will be crucial to securing that last playoff spot. They'll then host the Brampton Beast (24-30-6-4) on Friday, and the Cincinnati Cyclones (35-25-2-0) on Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Danny Fick scored his fourth goal of the season in Friday's loss:
Reid Gardiner scored his 27th goal of the season on Saturday:
WHEELING FUN THING
Derek Army is back, for real this time:
"I'm the captain now" - Derek Army (probably) pic.twitter.com/NC67hOXwqS
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) March 13, 2018
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