Nailers training camp this fall was a bit of double déjà vu for defenseman Craig Skudalski.
Skudalski, 23, had attended both the 2016 and 2017 training camps in Wheeling on a tryout contract, but failed to crack the opening night rosters. He spent both seasons in the Southern Professional Hockey League and the Federal Hockey League, two low-level independent professional leagues.
Coaches told Skudalski what steps he needed to take to earn a spot on Wheeling's roster. Skudalski is massive, at 6-foot-7. Typically players of his size aren't the smoothest skaters, and he was no exception. Skudalski needed to work on his foot speed and his overall skating. They wanted him to take advantage of his size, and become more physical and stronger to be a more effective defenseman.
Grinding it out in the minors, Skudalski took the advice to heart and worked on those areas of his game. He was able to crack the Nailers' opening night roster on Oct. 13, and he credits those first two years of disappointment in pushing him to get to where he is today.
"It definitely pushed me to work harder every summer to get better," Skudalski told me. "I kind of knew I was close, but I just wasn't there yet. I just worked harder and harder to make that my goal, to make the lineup. That definitely helped a lot."
Skudalski considers himself a two-way defenseman. His size and physicality allow him to play a strong defensive game, but he's also the kind of puck-moving defenseman that the Penguins like having in their system.
"I like to play a good defensive game, I like to block shots and all that stuff," he said. "But, I also like to join the rush and be more offensive than most people would think for being my size."
When Skudalski, who grew up minutes from Wilkes-Barre, learned that he made the team, the first call was of course to his family. The second call went to his best friend, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin and Shavertown native Pat McGrath.
"He was pretty excited," Skudalski said of telling McGrath the good news. "I work out with him all summer, so he helps me get stronger and tells me what I should work on and vice versa. We help each other out all summer."
For McGrath, who has played in the Penguins' organization for six years, he was happy to have his friend, another hometown kid, join him in the organization.
"I was real happy to see that paid off for him and he's getting a chance in Wheeling this year," McGrath said.
While McGrath had season tickets as a kid directly behind Wilkes-Barre's penalty box, Skudalski wasn't far away, in his season tickets right behind the visiting goaltender's net. He remembers looking up to players like Dennis Bonvie, and the loudness of the crowds and the playoff whiteouts.
"That was a big dream of mine to play for them one day," Skudalski said.
For this season, Skudalski's goals are simple.
"I just hope to personally get in as many games as possible, and learn as much from coach (Mike) Bavis as I can," he said. "He's a great coach, just coaching and teaching. I just try to get better every day in practice and stay in good shape."
Much like the journey it took for Skudalski to make it to Wheeling, it'll be an uphill battle for him to make it to Wilkes-Barre. He'll continue to push himself in his rookie ECHL season, and hopefully one day find himself on the roster of his childhood team with his best friend.
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Oct. 27: at Reading, 3-2 shootout win
• Oct. 28: at Reading, 5-2 loss
• Goaltender John Muse saw his first game action of the season, playing in both of the back-to-back games. Muse, a 30-year-old veteran with 174 games of AHL experience, was signed to an NHL-level deal over the summer. Anthony Peters more than earned the backup job in Wilkes-Barre, and Peters' contract prevents him from being reassigned to Wheeling, so it was Muse that got sent down to the ECHL. Muse recorded a 2.89 goals against average and a .914 save percentage in two games, making 37 and 27 saves respectively. He stopped all four Royals shooters in Saturday's shootout. He spent half of last season with the Royals, so it helped that he was familiar with many of their skaters.
• Troy Josephs was reassigned to Wheeling ahead of Saturday's game, after playing only one game in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Something that stood out to me was Josephs' stickhandling and his ability to just blow through traffic with ease. In this play, he knocked the puck through the legs of a Royal to himself, caught the puck on his foot, and kicked it back to his stick. With four Royals surrounding him, it's like he's the only guy out there:
• The best line of the weekend? No doubt, it was Josephs, Cam Brown, and Winston Day Chief, despite Saturday being their first game action together. Josephs and Brown are talented returning players who could likely find AHL work in other organizations, but are victims of Wilkes-Barre's forward depth -- especially given that both are natural centers. Day Chief is an experienced 30-year-old veteran in his seventh professional season, and a proven scorer and playmaker at this level.
Josephs and Day Chief each scored on Saturday, and Brown had the lone goal in the shootout.
• The Nailers weren't able to sweep the weekend series. Kevin Spinozzi and Nick Saracino were the only goal-scorers on Sunday afternoon. Muse, starting in his second game not even 24 hours after the previous one, made 27 saves and allowed four goals. The final Royals goal was an empty-netter.
• Lines and defense pairings from Saturday:
Troy Josephs - Cam Brown - Winston Day Chief
Zach Lynch - Nick Saracino - Yush Hirano
Alex Rauter - Cedric Lacroix - Eliot Grauer
Brien Diffley - Dane Birks
Johnny Austin - Danny Fick
Aaron Titcomb - Kevin Spinozzi
• Some have asked about the number of forwards in the lineup. Three full forward lines and an extra forward is standard in the ECHL.
• After this week, the Nailers have a record of 1-3, the worst in the league. The Nailers are also the only team to play only four games so far this season. The Nailers' power play is fourth in the league at 23.5 percent, and the penalty kill is 16th in the league at 81.3 percent.
• Finally, the Nailers will have their first home game of the season. They'll host the Indy Fuel (3-2) on Nov. 3.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Top shelf for Josephs for his first goal of the year:
Tic-tac-toe from Josephs to Brown to Day Chief. Day Chief was stopped on the initial shot, but scored a nice backhand goal on his second whack at it:
Brown had the lone shootout goal in the first win of the season:
Easy. Spinozzi scored on the first shot of the game on Sunday:
Co-captain Saracino with the snipe:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Muse showed up against his former team:
WHEELING FUN THING
The Nailers showed off a sneak peak of their new Hall of Fame wall:
A home opener sneak peek! #halloffameready
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) October 25, 2018
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