Jay Spess is in his first season as an assistant coach of the Wheeling Nailers, joining the team in February after former assistant coach Riley Armstrong took a head coaching job with the Maine Mariners. This week, as we near the end of the regular season, I took a moment to speak with Spess about his background, his new role, the Nailers' fight for a playoff spot and more.
Q: You're in your first professional coaching job. How did you get this opportunity? What was it like to make that move?
A: I've been in Wilkes-Barre working at that practice rink, working with Clark Donatelli and the coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre for a couple of years now. Prior to Clark I worked with John Hynes, and for a short period of time, Mike Sullivan. The opportunity just came up when Riley Armstrong had left. They had approached me about it and I jumped right at the opportunity. It's what I want to get into.
Q: You worked with the rehabbing the injured players in Wilkes-Barre? What did that entail?
A: Yeah. I did the rehab skates for a lot of the players, and in the offseason I worked with some of the Penguins players that stayed around. Pat McGrath, Derrick Pouliot, just to name a few.
Q: When I spoke with Riley Armstrong, he talked about being responsible for a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, like dealing with the apartments. Is that your role now too?
A: Yeah. Jeff Christian has kind of had me ease into that. He took command of that at first, then he's slowly been giving me a lot of the behind-the-scenes details as I adjust to everything. At first, there's just so much to learn right off the get-go. It was a little difficult, but I got the transition now. And I learn more every day.
Q: Has anything surprised you about your new role?
A: Yeah, I didn't realize all the stuff that went on behind-the-scenes with all the transactions. My first two or three weeks on the job we went through 40-something transactions. Just to see that had my head spinning for a little while.
Q: This time of year has a lot of players coming and going from colleges or callups, whatever it may be. Does that make it tough to find consistency in the games?
A: That's one of the things I think we struggled with at first. Me getting here and having to learn everybody's face and name and all the ins and outs, it was difficult for me, and I'm sure it was just as difficult for the players to get a level of comfort with whoever they were playing with, then they'd be plucked in and out of the lineup. But for the most part, I think everybody did a really good job with all the turnover we've had.
Q: Which players have really stood out to you or impressed you during your time here?
A: To be honest with you, I don't want to say anybody in particular. The team as a whole has, they've impressed me with the way they've dealt with everything. It hasn't been perfect, but they've battled through it and fought through it, and I've never seen a give-up in any of them. They continue to push, which has impressed me in every single one of the players on the team.
A: Oh yeah, Cody and Dan Fick, Dan Fick in particular, just because I've been running the defense. He's been a really good help to me, getting into this whole thing. Those guys, being new to coaching pro hockey, both have helped me in my transition. Definitely, those guys have been awesome to work with.
Q: A problem that the team has dealt with for most of the season is the starts, and being in a position early in the game where the guys have to claw back. Has getting off to a fast start been a big focus lately?
A: Absolutely. Right now, every minute, every second of every game counts. You want to get out of the gates up ahead instead of having to crawl from behind. We've been focusing on that and trying to figure out how to get the guys to jump on a lead quick. There's games we've done it and there's games that haven't gone our way, but I don't think we've given up on anything so far this year.
Q: Wheeling currently sits right on the edge of a playoff spot. What does the team need to do in these final games to earn that last spot?
A: I think that they honestly just need to focus on the positives, the good things they've done this season. Just go out there and play hard. They can play hard, that's for sure. If they just go out there and play it one shift at a time and not worry about who's doing what, and take care of their own stuff, we'll be fine. We should get in.
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Mar. 27: vs. Cincinnati, 5-3 loss
• Mar. 30: at Toledo, 4-1 loss
• Mar. 31: vs. Manchester, 5-2 win
• The Nailers lost every road game in the month of March, and went only 4-2-2 at home. This is the time of year when teams need to be playing their best hockey, and the Nailers haven't done that.
• Cody Wydo remains out of the lineup after an open-ice hit last week.
• After this week, the Nailers have dropped to fifth place in the North Division, out of a playoff spot. They trail the Worcester Railers by only one point. Worcester is 8-1-0-1 in its last 10 games, while Wheeling is 4-4-2-0 in its last 10. That's the difference-maker.
• The Nailers (34-27-8-1) have two road games this week to close out the season -- the Brampton Beast (26-33-6-4) on Friday, and the Fort Wayne Komets (44-19-5-1) on Saturday. Brampton is in last in the North Division, and Fort Wayne cannot improve or drop in the Central Division standings.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Chris Francis recorded this shorthanded goal this week, his 11th goal of the season:
HIT OF THE WEEK
It wasn't the greatest week for Nailers goaltenders, so instead of a save, here's something different -- Dan Milan laying out a Walleye:
WHEELING FUN THING
Here's a great throwback from last season with Brett Stern and Clint Hurdle wearing what might just be the best promotional jerseys of all time:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) March 29, 2018
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