In the summer of 2017, Kevin Spinozzi wasn't quite sure where he was going to end up.
The defenseman had just wrapped up his final year of junior hockey in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting. As more of a late bloomer, Spinozzi went undrafted and was now a free agent looking for a place to start his professional career. If no teams came calling, he would probably have to make the jump to Canadian college hockey.
Finally, he got the call. The Penguins had invited him to play on their team for the annual Prospects Challenge tournament for a tryout. Following the conclusion of the tournament, he was invited to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's camp, and signed to a professional tryout contract -- one that allowed him to play some regular season AHL games before being signed to a full contract.
Wilkes-Barre used Spinozzi infrequently throughout his rookie season. By mid-December, he had only appeared in six games, but the team liked him enough to sign him to a full AHL contract for the remainder of the season. By March, he had only played in 16 total games and registered two assists. He was re-assigned to Wheeling for the remainder of the season. Spinozzi finished the year in the ECHL, finally seeing some regular playing time, and recorded two goals and three assists in 12 games.
While Spinozzi, 22, would surely have preferred to be playing regularly in his rookie season, he took his first year in stride and trusted the process.
"Maybe I wasn't playing every night, but it's all about keeping a positive attitude and making sure you're mentally strong," he told me this week. "Everyone in their career at one point in time is going to go through something like that. You come out of it stronger and make the most of it."
Now in his sophomore season, Spinozzi is back in the organization on an AHL-level deal. This time around though, he started the year out in Wheeling to finally have some stability and grow as a player.
"(The coaches) didn't want me to be in and out, they wanted me to be out there, down here, playing as many minutes as I can and develop as much as I can so when they need a guy, they can call me," said Spinozzi.
Spinozzi is a 6-feet-2, 200-pound, left-handed defenseman. He prides himself in his two-way abilities -- his defensive responsibilities come first, but he'll join the rush and contribute offensively when the opportunity arises. In his final year in the OHL as an overage player with an increased role, he put up career numbers with 13 goals and 28 assists in 51 games, as well as three goals and one assist in four playoff games.
Now, with an increased role in Wheeling, he's showing more of his scoring touch and playmaking abilities. Through 13 games, he's registered three goals and seven assists.
"It's nice for sure," Spinozzi said of contributing offensively this season. "But the team is helping with that. We've got five guys on the ice, and just being at the right spot at the right time, guys giving you the puck and you giving it to them, and capitalizing on the opportunities that you have. I just thank my teammates for that."
After games, Spinozzi will often get advice from his father, Frank. Frank has been the head coach of Neuilly-sur-Marne of the France 2 league since 2010. Frank will make sure to watch Nailers games, even with the 1 a.m. start time in France.
"I talk to him and see what he thought and get his opinion on stuff," Spinozzi said of his father. "To have a hockey dad and a hockey coach, and him being able to separate the 'coach' from the 'dad', being able to do both is really helpful for my career."
While Spinozzi himself is from Quebec, he played some U18 hockey in France before making it to the OHL. Spinozzi spent the 2010-11 season in the city of Amiens.
"It was great, it was a really good experience," he said. "The hockey was great, but even just learning about Europe, being able to travel when I was there and see a lot of cultures, that was great. Even the hockey, it's better than what people think it is, and it's getting better every year now. I really enjoyed it, I think it helped me."
While European hockey has a reputation for being less physical, Spinozzi said his experience in France actually helped him improve the physical side of his game.
"The rinks are bigger over in Europe, so the physicality is a bit lower," he said. "But the high-pace of it, if you're able to play physical there, it's just going to translate even better when you come over here."
Right now, a call-up isn't exactly in the forefront of Spinozzi's mind. But if Wilkes-Barre is in search of a defenseman, Spinozzi will likely be the first to earn the call. For now, his focus is on Wheeling and his own development.
"Right now my main goal is to help Wheeling win games," said Spinozzi. "But if any time a call up happens, I'm going to go up and try to help Wilkes win. Wherever I'm at is where I'm meant to be. So just work hard here and make a difference, and if I get a chance to go up to Wilkes, to play the same way I'm playing here."
If Spinozzi is able to work his way up through the Penguins' system, there's a chance he could be reunited with his former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds teammate -- and chauffeur -- Matt Murray.
"Me and Matt, we were neighbors for years," Spinozzi said. "I didn't have my license yet and he did, so I'd hop in with him and drive to the rink. Me and Matt, we're friends.
"Hopefully one day we can reconnect, and maybe be on the ice together."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Nov. 21: vs. Reading, 5-1 loss
• Nov. 24: vs. Toledo, 4-3 loss
• Nov. 25: vs. Cincinnati, 3-2 win
• Finally, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton recalled Troy Josephs from Wheeling on Monday evening. Josephs has more than proved himself in Wheeling this season. He's been a factor in 44 percent of all Nailers goals this season, so Wheeling will be in a tough spot this week. Josephs has a bright future.
Josephs this year reminds me some of Carter Rowney in 2014-15. Rowney had a good season the year before, came here with a great attitude, tore it up, and earned his call. You can say the same for Troy.
— DJ Abisalih (@Deej_HockeyPXP) November 26, 2018
• With Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre summoned John Muse to back up Anthony Peters in net. Matt O'Connor and Danny Tirone will share the net in Wheeling.
• The Nailers weren't able to carry their momentum from last weekend's road trip into Wednesday's matchup with the Royals. Reading, who entered the game riding a six-game winless streak, got off to an early start with two goals in the first five minutes. Spinozzi scored the lone Nailers' goal of the night, and Reading answered with three more of their own. Muse made 22 saves on 27 shots in his final game before his recall.
• One goal was the difference between Wheeling and division-leading Toledo on Saturday. The Nailers got off to another slow start, with Toledo taking a 3-0 lead in the second period. Cedric Lacroix and Danny Fick scored to bring the Nailers within one goal, but the Walleye extended their lead with four minutes remaining in the third period. Josephs responded with a shorthanded breakaway goal just over two minutes later, but the rally fell short. O'Connor made 26 saves on 30 shots in the loss.
• Yet again, Wheeling dug itself into a hole early on in Sunday's game, with Cincinnati carrying a 2-0 lead into the second period. Alex Rauter scored the Nailers' first goal of the game midway through the second period, and Nick Saracino tied the game a minute into the third period. Winston Day Chief's rebound goal in the third period was the game-winner. Wheeling held Cincinnati to only 22 shots, and O'Connor stopped 20 of them. It was the Nailers' first Central Division win of the season, and their second win at home.
• Josephs still leads the team with 12 goals and 18 points. Saracino is the current active leader in points, with 12, and his eight assists lead the team overall. Saracino and Zac Lynch are the current active leaders in goals, with four.
• Lines and defense pairings from Sunday:
Zac Lynch - Cam Brown - Winston Day Chief
Troy Josephs - Michael Phillips - Nick Saracino
Renars Krastenbergs - Cedric Lacroix - Alex Rauter
Josh Couturier - Dane Birks
Kevin Spinozzi - Danny Fick
Robbie Hall - Aaron Titcomb
• After this week, the Nailers fell to fifth in the six-team Central Division with a record of 6-8-1. The Nailers’ power play dropped to 12th in the league at 17.7 percent, and the penalty kill dropped to 17th in the league at 82.2 percent.
• The Nailers are on the road Tuesday night against the Kalamazoo Wings (4-10-0-1). They'll host the Indy Fuel (9-8) on Friday, and then Kalamazoo on Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Lacroix had the Nailers' first goal on Friday:
Fick picked up the rebound:
Just a Josephs shorthanded breakaway goal, nothing to see here:
Rauter with the snipe:
Josephs fed Saracino for a beautiful goal:
Day Chief got the redirect on Fick's shot:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
He's not the goaltender, but Aaron Titcomb's goal-line stop was one of the more impressive saves of the week:
WHEELING FUN THING
All the details on Saturday's Hockey Fights Cancer game:
Our Hockey Fights Cancer game is THIS weekend, Saturday Dec. 1st. Great Clips will be giving free shaves to fans, as well as to our players. We will be painting the glass with names. The proceeds will be donated to the Mario Lemieux Foundation.https://t.co/pPAYdjW6nQ pic.twitter.com/iZpn5wk1IZ
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) November 26, 2018
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