Heavy roster turnover is common year-to-year in the ECHL, especially when there is a change at head coach.
As a result, the Nailers' roster this season is full of almost entirely new faces, with a few exceptions. One of the players returning to Wheeling is the speedy 5-foot-7 playmaker, Cam Brown.
Brown, 25, is in his second professional season after spending the majority of his 2017-18 rookie season with the Nailers. Brown produced at nearly a point-per-game pace as a rookie, amassing 17 goals and 36 assists in 55 games. His efforts earned him two AHL tryouts last season while on an ECHL contract -- a 13-game stint with the Springfield Thunderbirds, and a single game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Over the summer, Brown's work paid off and he was signed to an AHL-level contract with Wilkes-Barre.
"Oh, it was unbelievable," Brown told me of earning his AHL deal. "I was really excited and happy for the opportunity."
Brown still has to grind it out in the ECHL given Wilkes-Barre's forward depth, but he's happy to be back in the Penguins organization, and didn't give much thought into signing elsewhere.
"I just really enjoyed my experience in Wheeling," he said of his decision. "I was thankful for the opportunity that they had given me, and I think it's an organization that I can get a chance in."
Not only are many Nailers new to Wheeling this season, they're new to the ECHL. The roster is full of players fresh out of college or juniors, or players making the jump from the SPHL or another country. With an average age of only 24.72, this is the youngest team the Nailers have had in nearly a decade.
Even though Brown is still a young guy himself and is just in his sophomore professional season, he's suddenly one of the more experienced players on the team. No stranger to being in a position of leadership after captaining University of Maine in his senior year of college, Brown is now finding himself taking on a leadership role in the Nailers' locker room.
"It's definitely a different experience, but it's cool too," Brown said of playing with all new guys. "You can take a leadership role and let guys know how Wheeling works."
Brown is seeing an increased role on the ice, too. Last season, captain Nick Sorkin occupied the first-line center spot for nearly the entire season, and Brown primarily played on the second line. The line combinations change game-by-game as coach Mike Bavis experiments with different options, but Brown has already spent a few games as the team's first-line center.
In five games this season, Brown has recorded three assists, and scored a beautiful shootout goal that clinched the Nailers their first -- and only -- win of the season:
"I think it can get better, you can always get better," Brown said of his play early in the season. "I think I've played well, but I still have a lot more to get better at."
Brown's goals for the year are to play more offensively than he did as a rookie, while continuing to play a strong two-way game and be reliable in the Nailers' zone.
Two players Brown has spent a few games centering this season are returning Nailer Troy Josephs and ECHL veteran Winston Day Chief. In the team's two-game series in Reading last week, they were the best line on the ice. The trio teamed up for two goals, including this goal that really showed off the line's quick passing. Josephs passed the puck to Brown, who passed it to Day Chief through some traffic. Day Chief's one-timer was stopped, but he picked up his own rebound and backhanded it into the net:
"It was fun to play with 'Joey' and 'Chiefer'," Brown said. "I played with Joey a bit last year, he's an extremely good player. And, obviously, Chiefer is an established player in this league. He knows what it takes to succeed at this level."
As a team, the Nailers haven't had much success yet this season. Somehow, over three weeks into the season, they've only played five games, and only one game at home. Most of the league has played at least 10 games, and the Nailers are the only team to play fewer than 7. With a team of mostly new players learning the system of a new head coach, that's not a schedule that's conducive for building team chemistry.
Brown believes that the Nailers are starting to come together, though.
"I think we're starting to see some chemistry," he said. "Once we start picking up the games here, I think we'll start clicking more. We've broken down the games pretty well, so I think we'll see an increase in our performance ... We're working hard. Things will fall into place."
Even though Brown now has his AHL contract, earning a call-up isn't in the forefront of his mind. He's focused on helping the team win in Wheeling, and improving each day.
"Wherever I am, I'm just going to try to play to the best of my ability, no matter what."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Nov. 3: vs. Indy, 5-3 loss
• Finally, in the third week of the season, the Nailers played a game at home. Josephs and Zac Lynch opened the scoring for Wheeling for a 2-0 lead in the first period, but the Nailers blew the lead in the second period after the Fuel scored five goals in under ten minutes. Josephs scored again in the final frame, but the comeback effort fell short. John Muse made 19 saves on 24 shots in the loss.
• Josephs leads the team in goals, with three in three games. Lynch leads the team in points, with six.
• Brad Drobot is an early fan favorite for this fight in the home opener:
• Lines and defense pairings from Saturday:
Troy Josephs - Zac Lynch - Nick Saracino
Renars Krastenbergs - Cedric Lacroix - Michael Phillips
Winston Day Chief - Cam Brown - Eliot Grauer
Robbie Hall - Danny Fick
Kevin Spinozzi - Dane Birks
Johnny Austin - Aaron Titcomb
• After this week, the Nailers rank last in the league with a record of 1-4. The Nailers’ power play is third in the league at 22.7 percent, and the penalty kill is 14th in the league at 83.3 percent.
• The Nailers will go back on the road on Wednesday for a game against the Cincinnati Cyclones (5-2-2). They'll return home Friday and Saturday for a two-game series against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (3-7-1).
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Josephs scored twice in the home opener:
Lynch, a Robert Morris alum from Shaler, had a lot of friends and family in attendance to see this goal:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Muse made this glove save before things started to go south on Saturday:
WHEELING FUN THING
Some pretty ... uh ... interesting costumes this year from the Nailers:
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