Penguins

Wheeling Watch: Thoughts on the Nailers’ season, future

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WesBanco Arena. - ZACK RAWSON / WHEELING NAILERS

The Wheeling Nailers' 2017-18 season has come to a close.

After making the Kelly Cup Finals in 2016, the Nailers have now missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

What were the biggest issues the team faced this season? What questions will the team face in the offseason? I offer my thoughts.

3. Goaltending concerns?

The Nailers played six goaltenders over the course of the season -- Adam Morrison, Sean Maguire, Will King, Colin Stevens, Matt O'Connor, and Danny Tirone.

Not one of the goaltenders had a goals against average under 3.00. Morrison was the only goaltender who remained in Wheeling most of the season, and he recorded a save percentage of .905 through his 36 appearances, ranking 27th in the league.

Only one of those goaltenders, Maguire, was on an NHL contract, and he was only with the team a short period of time before being recalled to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and later traded to Arizona. That is out of Wheeling's control. However, Wheeling is still responsible for signing their own goaltenders, and success can be found with players on ECHL-level deals. Franky Palazzese, the starter who carried Wheeling to the Kelly Cup Finals in 2016, was on an ECHL contract. One of his backups that season, Casey DeSmith, was signed out of college that season and is now in the NHL.

Players like 27-year-old Morrison aren't there to develop into future talent for Pittsburgh like DeSmith did. Still, Wheeling has carried veteran goaltenders in the past who were also solid in their own right. They didn't do that this season.

No goaltenders are signed for 2018-19, and Pittsburgh doesn't have any goaltending prospects in the pipeline that will end up in Wheeling anytime soon. They'll likely end up with at least one goaltender next season on a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton contract, but the team needs to be better at signing their own goaltenders.

2. The schedule will get easier

The Nailers were a victim of the league's alignment this year.

The team played in the North Division, along with Adirondack, Manchester, Reading, Worcester, and Brampton.

ECHL teams travel almost exclusively by bus, and being in a division with so many opponents that weren't close geographically did put some strain on the team. It also caused some odd scheduling moves, like playing multiple games against the same divisional opponent in a short time frame, rather than have them more spread out over the course of the season.

Additionally, they went through an unusually long stretch of road games, playing a home game on Feb. 16 and not returning home again until Mar. 2. That's not ideal, and it contributed to the team's poor second half of the season.

Next season, the Nailers will join the Central Division, which should help with scheduling concerns. Their new division rivals — Cincinnati, Kalamazoo, Toledo, Fort Wayne, and Indy — are closer geographically, which will allow for more even scheduling. The furthest team in the new division is Kalamazoo, and that is still closer than Adirondack, Manchester, and Worcester.

"The move to the Central Division is an extremely beneficial one for our team," Nailers Alternate Governor Brian Komorowski said in a team release. "This will limit the wear and tear of long divisional road trips, by bringing us together with teams close to us geographically. It will also help to increase the number of games we play against traditional rivals such as Cincinnati, Toledo, and Kalamazoo, while keeping games with teams like Reading on our schedule."

The Nailers' 79 points would have been enough to qualify for the playoffs in the Central Division. While they'll now be seeing the powerhouse regular season champions Toledo Walleye more often, they should have an easier time with travel and scheduling next season.

1. Does Jeff Christian return?

Head coach Jeff Christian is currently without a contract.

Christian, then the assistant coach, took over behind the bench in the middle of the 2016 Kelly Cup Run after Dave Gove left the team for personal reasons. When Gove was not able to return the following season, Christian lost the interim tag and was given a two-year contract as head coach.

The Nailers have missed the playoffs in both of those seasons.

During the team's locker room clean out day on Monday, Christian told The Intelligencer "I feel like I have some unfinished business here.''

Well, it seems like he has no business here.

Christian was unpopular with much of the core of the 2016 team after he took over, and he was a factor in some of those players not returning. Last season I spoke with an ECHL player on another team who was teammates with a 2016 Nailer, and he said he heard enough horror stories of Christian — both as a coach, and off-ice behavior — to keep him from coming anywhere near Wheeling.

That's not to say Wheeling is not a good place to play. Players like being there. Many players with whom I have spoken this season have raved about the facilities and the living arrangements provided by the team.

And yes, Wheeling has one of the best reputations around the ECHL for developing players. Players I have spoken to have mentioned names like Carter Rowney, Tom Kuhnhackl, and DeSmith, all in the NHL after spending time in Wheeling. Of course, Christian has nothing to do with that; they all came before him.

Players also have spoken about how Pittsburgh's involvement with the organization is unique and beneficial to all players, even players not on NHL contracts. That's a testament to the Penguins' commitment to developing their own talent, and a benefit of the NHL club being so close geographically to the ECHL club, a luxury not many organizations have. Again, not because of Christian.

Turnover is expected in this league. Teams deal with their own injuries, but are also hit by callups throughout the season. Players on ECHL-level contracts often also sign tryout contracts with other organizations throughout the year. It's a developmental league, that's the goal. Still, Wheeling set a franchise record for number of players used this season, with an incredible 62 players suiting up for at least one game this season.

Roster management falls mostly on the coach in the ECHL. Christian almost singlehandedly handles the signing of ECHL-level players, as well as trades of players on ECHL contracts.

When Christian spoke on clean-out day, he told The Intelligencer that, "Maybe it’s that we get so many guys sent down and we’re so young that ultimately it’s the older teams that win. I don’t know, I haven’t looked at that."

Well, I did. The Nailers' average age this season was 24.81. The 2016 Kelly Cup Final Nailers had an average age of 24.36. This season's regular season champions, the Florida Everblades, have an average age of 24.96. The leaders of the North Division, the Adirondack Thunder, weren't far off with an average age of 25.32.

You get the point. Youth wasn't the problem. 22-year-old team-leading goal scorer Reid Gardiner wasn't the problem. Rookie Cam Brown and his 53 points in 55 games wasn't the problem. The two rookie forwards on NHL contracts -- Troy Josephs (36 points in 43 games) and Freddie Tiffels (33 points in 44 games) -- weren't the problem either.

This was one of the more skilled teams the Nailers have had in recent years. They should have made the playoffs. They did not.

I — and the organization — have heard from multiple women who allege inappropriate, unwanted communication from 47-year-old Christian (a husband and father) over social media. When this became known to the organization last season, Christian deleted his Twitter account over the offseason. From what I've heard from the women involved, that behavior continued this season.

Christian, who self-admittedly got this opportunity in coaching professional hockey after "begging" his buddy and former teammate Bill Guerin for a job, doesn't seem fit for this role.

I'd be surprised if Christian returns next season.

UPDATE 1:40 p.m.: Christian's contract will not be renewed.

MORE FROM WHEELING

• Apr. 6: at. Brampton, 4-3 loss
• Apr. 7: at Fort Wayne, 7-3 win

• Reports out of Germany are that a DEL team is targeting Tiffels for next season. I asked Tiffels about the reports, and he reiterated that his goal is still to play in the NHL.

GOALS OF THE WEEK

Rookie Reid Gardiner scored his 29th goal of the season on Friday:

Tiffels scored this goal in the loss:

Gardiner's 30th goal of the season came on Saturday:

Rookie Riley Bourbonnais scored this goal on Saturday, his 23rd of the season. Bourbonnais finished third in team goal-scoring:

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