Penguins

Wheeling Watch: Josephs tears through ECHL

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Troy Josephs. -- ZACK RAWSON / WHEELING NAILERS

Troy Josephs is too good for this league. That's becoming increasingly clear with each game.

Josephs, the Penguins' seventh-round draft pick in 2013, is in his second full professional season. After not being signed to an NHL contract following his senior season at Clarkson University in 2017, he signed an AHL-level deal with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and began his professional career.

Josephs finished that year out in Wilkes-Barre, registering his first professional goal and assist in 13 games. In his rookie 2017-18 season, a victim of Wilkes-Barre's forward depth, he only spent four scoreless games in the AHL. Josephs spent the rest of the season dominating in Wheeling, with 16 goals and 20 assists in 43 ECHL games.

After Josephs' success last season, it seemed he had done enough to make the jump to the AHL full-time this season. He felt that way too, when I asked him about it at Pittsburgh's training camp in September:

“I definitely believe in my capability to play (in the AHL), that’s why I feel like I’m (invited to Pittsburgh's camp),” he said at the time. “I’m trying to make the team (in Pittsburgh), and even with my AHL contract I can show them what I’ve got. Wilkes-Barre is a stepping stone for me to make it to the NHL. I definitely believe I can play (in Wilkes-Barre). That’s the first step.”

After only one game in Wilkes-Barre this season, during which he recorded one assist, the winger was re-assigned to Wheeling. Since then, Josephs has been on a tear -- amassing 11 goals and three assists in only 10 games. He has the second-most goals in all of the ECHL.

"I had high expectations for myself this season," Josephs told me this week. "Once I got sent down here, I could either make the most of it or just sit around and feel sorry for myself that I'm not where I think I should be. But the start's been great, and I'm just looking to keep the momentum."

Josephs, 24, has certainly been making the most of his time in Wheeling. ECHL teams only run three forward lines, so he's playing big minutes every single game. Josephs plays on the power play, and as one of the team's strongest two-way players, he's also on the penalty kill. As one of the few returning players on such a young Nailers team, he's also been able to take on more of a leadership role this season.

The message from coaches when Josephs was sent down was simple: Use his speed, play with confidence, and just shoot the puck. His speed has set him apart from other players on the ice, and he's averaging over four shots per game.

6-feet-1, 185-pound Josephs has definitely been playing with confidence, and has been heating up as the season has gone on. Six of his goals game in this week's four games. He began the week by scoring the Nailers' lone goal on Tuesday:

He opened the scoring on Friday in the second period:

Later that period while on the penalty kill, Josephs helped forced a turnover and scored a shorthanded goal:

In the third period, he undressed a couple of Icemen on the way to completing the natural hat trick -- the second hat trick of his career:

He wasn't done yet, though. On Sunday, he drove to the net on the power play and added another:

Later in Sunday's game, Josephs scored this absurd goal back between his own legs. Pulling off a move like this takes the confidence that coaches want to see from him:

"When you're in front of the net like that you don't really have much time," Josephs said of his highlight-reel goal. "When I got the puck I sort of felt the goalie was on me, and I thought if I could just put it between my legs and put it far enough, he wouldn't be able to get it and it would have a chance to go in. Luckily, it did."

That goal earned a lot of attention on social media, even shared by former ESPN anchor (and lover of college hockey products) John Buccigross, much to the surprise of Josephs.

"It's pretty funny that it got (Buccigross') attention," Josephs said. "I honestly didn't think it was going to be any sort of big deal, but I guess it caught a little wind and it was just pretty funny."

With 36 points in 43 ECHL games last season, Josephs was already a proven scorer at this level entering this season. Still, he's on another level this year. Some of that can be attributed to Josephs' comfort level, coming in as a second-year pro. He also credits his increased work this summer, as he was healthy and able to train harder.

"I think it goes to my offseason," he said. "Last year I didn't have an offseason with my shoulder surgery, so when I came back, I was sort of already behind the eight ball. This year I was able to work out more than I had in the past, and I was able to start skating more. I think it's just a testament to my offseason and putting in the work here."

There is surely room for Josephs in Wilkes-Barre's lineup. Forward Ryan Horvat is playing for the Penguins on a tryout deal, and is occupying one of the team's veteran spots. When everyone is healthy, Wilkes-Barre is over the veteran player limit, and Horvat isn't exactly impressing enough to take a spot away from one of the other veterans on the team. Forward Pat McGrath has been playing semi-regularly, and there's no reason he should be in the lineup over Josephs.

Josephs is versatile -- a natural center, he has primarily played wing this season, and excelled. That should help his case.

If and when Josephs gets the recall to Wilkes-Barre, Wheeling is going to be in a tough spot. Josephs has factored into 14 of Wheeling's 34 goals this season, or just over 41 percent. After this past weekend though, Josephs says the team is heading in the right direction.

"Having a slow start at the beginning, a lot of people were probably already writing us off at the beginning. But we had a good three-in-three, and people are starting to look up. (Mike Bavis) is being real optimistic with such a young group and making sure he's holding everyone accountable."

Josephs will likely get that call from Wilkes-Barre sooner rather than later, and he'll be ready when the time comes.

"I believe I can play in the AHL right now," he said. "But it's still good being here, being able to get a lot of ice time, being able to play a lot and just work on my game and keep getting better. I'm just trying to make sure I'm ready to take the next step, and it starts with playing well here."

MORE FROM WHEELING

• Nov. 13: vs. Toledo, 2-1 loss
• Nov. 16: at Jacksonville, 4-1 win
• Nov. 17: at South Carolina, 4-1 win
• Nov. 18: at Greenville, 5-4 overtime win

• Tuesday morning's game against the Walleye ended in a loss, but holding one of the league's top teams to only two goals and 23 shots was an encouraging sign for the Nailers. Josephs' goal was the only Nailers goal, and John Muse took the 21-save loss.

• Josephs again carried the team on Friday, with a hat trick. Zac Lynch scored the other goal for the Nailers, an empty net goal. Muse picked up the win with 36 saves on 37 shots.

• The Nailers had some more variety on the scoresheet on Saturday with goals from Winston Day Chief and Kevin Spinozzi, as well as Alex Rauter's first goal of the season. Yushiroh Hirano scored his first professional goal in North America, an empty net tally. Matt O'Connor stood tall (6-foot-6 tall, to be exact) in net to make 30 saves on 31 shots for his first win as a Nailer.

• On Sunday, Rauter added another goal, Josephs scored twice, and Michael Phillips scored to send the game to overtime. Nick Saracino was the overtime hero with his third goal of the season, set up by Josephs and Spinozzi. Muse got another win, with 20 saves on 24 shots.

• Josephs leads the team in goals with 11 --  seven more than the next guy, Lynch. Josephs also leads the team in points with 14. Lynch is in second place with 10. Spinozzi leads the team in assists, with seven.

• Lines and defense pairings from Saturday:

Zac Lynch – Cam Brown – Winston Day Chief
Troy Josephs – Michael Phillips – Nick Saracino
Renars Krastenbergs – Cedric Lacroix – Tyler Bird
Alex Rauter

Kevin Spinozzi – Danny Fick
Josh Courtier – Dane Birks
Brien Diffley – Aaron Titcomb

• After this week, the Nailers rank fourth in the six-team Central Division with a record of 5-6-1. The Nailers’ power play rose to fifth in the league at 20.4 percent, and the penalty kill rose to 13th in the league at 84.2 percent.

• After a long road trip, the Nailers are back home. They'll host the Reading Royals (5-4-2-4) on Wednesday, the Toledo Walleye (11-1-1) on Saturday, and the Cincinnati Cyclones (10-3-2) on Sunday.

GOALS OF THE WEEK

Rauter scored twice this week:

Phillips fired this shot:

WHEELING FUN THING

Hirano posted a look inside the Nailers' bus:

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