Defenseman Dane Birks is currently the only Penguins draft pick playing for the Nailers under an NHL contract.
The 23-year-old native of Merritt, British Columbia was the Penguins' sixth-round pick in 2013. The Penguins signed Birks to a two-year entry level contract in March 2018, following the conclusion of Birks' senior season at Michigan Tech.
Birks attended Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's training camp this fall and was named to the team's season-opening roster. With a crowded blue line in Wilkes-Barre, Birks did not play in the season opener and was reassigned to Wheeling, where he has been since. For Birks, it isn't discouraging to be playing his first professional season in Wheeling. His goal is the same wherever he is.
"You just want to make a name for yourself, being your first year," Birks told me this week. "You just want to do whatever (coaches) tell you, and be an elite prospect for them no matter where you are -- whether it's in Wilkes-Barre or Wheeling. It doesn't matter where you are, you're still going to play the same and try to do what they tell you to do."
Like most college prospects making their professional debuts, there has been an adjustment period for Birks. The games are more frequent, the players are more skilled, and the game is more controlled and technical. Birks has grown more comfortable throughout the season, and now plays on the Nailers' top defensive pairing.
Birks, a 6-feet-2, 190-pound right-handed shot, is a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman who brings a physical edge to the lineup. He'll use his size, be it with a hit or just outmuscling a guy to force him offside:
38 games into the season, Birks has nine assists, and is still searching for his first professional goal.
In college, the points came more easily. Birks set career highs his senior year with five goals and 13 assists in 44 games.
As a pro, Birks has taken on more of a shutdown role, and has been focusing on being reliable defensively and being strong on the penalty kill. Still, coach Mike Bavis wants Birks to get more pucks to the net, and hopefully regain some of the offensive production he had in college.
As the Nailers' only skater on an NHL contract, Birks doesn't feel any added pressure. The organization doesn't treat its players any differently based on their contract status. Development coaches like Ty Hennes are sent down to Wheeling to work with all players equally, and Birks knows he has to work just as hard as everyone else.
"I'm just another person, just another teammate, just another guy that's trying to pursue their dreams," Birks said. "I don't put myself higher than anybody or lower, you just fit in."
Birks gets some pointers from another coach, too -- his father, Bill. Bill had a brief professional career with the Johnstown Chiefs when the Chiefs were part of the ECHL, and went on to coach in the junior British Columbia Hockey League for several seasons. Birks is able to benefit from his father's experience.
"We talk after every game, he tries to watch most of the games when he's not coaching," said Birks. "He's always there telling me what I did wrong or what I can do better, which is always helpful. The more eyes the better, right?"
With 10 defensemen currently on Wilkes-Barre's roster, Birks will need to remain in Wheeling to develop for a little while longer before he'll be able to see regular playing time in the AHL. He'll continue to take advantage of those big minutes in Wheeling and grow his game before taking that next step.
THE ROSTER MOVES
• The Nailers signed defenseman Jake Schultz. Schultz, 22, recorded two assists in 11 games in the SPHL.
• Forward Mike Fazio was injured on Dec. 31 and remains on injured reserve … defenseman Brien Diffley was injured on Jan. 5 and is week-to-week. ... Craig Skudalski was placed on reserve after blocking a shot on Jan. 26.
• Defenseman Johnny Austin was activated from reserve on Jan. 24 after going on bereavement leave
• Jersey colors are now switched. Beginning this week, home teams wear white and visiting teams wear dark jerseys. Both the AHL and ECHL make this switch at midseason each year.
• With captains Danny Fick and Nick Saracino in the AHL, Zac Lynch is wearing the "C".
• Goaltending development coach Andy Chiodo was in town this week to work with John Muse, Jordan Ruby, and Matt O'Connor. Goaltending has been a recent problem for the Nailers, notably with Muse's play. Not a bad time for Chiodo to make a visit.
• I saw Muse in the press box of Monday night's 6-3 loss to the Devils. Hopefully he didn't come to the game for any pointers.
• Jan. 25: vs. Brampton, 6-5 loss
The Nailers dug themselves into a 2-0 hole after 20 minutes.
Midway through the second period, the Nailers tied the game off Alec Butcher's second goal of the year and Yushiroh Hirano's 11th. The Beast regained the lead less then a minute later, and extended their lead to 4-2 before the end of the second period.
The Beast again extended their lead to start the third period, but the Nailers clawed back to a one-goal deficit after Lynch's 12th and Troy Josephs' 20th goal of the season. The Beast then made it a 6-4 game with under three minutes remaining. Butcher's second goal of the game and third goal of the season brought the Nailers back within one goal, but they were unable to complete the comeback.
Muse took the loss with 18 saves on 24 shots.
The Nailers went 1-for-4 on the power play, and did not have to kill any penalties.
• Jan. 26: vs. Reading, 6-5 shootout loss
It was an eventful first 20 minutes on Saturday.
The Nailers took a 2-0 lead through 6:48 after Hirano's 12th of the season and Cedric Lacroix's 10th, but then the Royals scored three goals in less than three minutes to take the lead. Goaltender O'Connor was pulled after the quick goals in favor of Ruby. Michael Phillips' 10th goal of the season tied the game, but the Royals took a 4-3 lead before the end of the period.
Phillips and Lacroix's 11th goals of the year gave the Nailers a 5-4 lead, but the Royals tied the game with the lone goal in the third period.
Butcher, Josephs, and Hirano were stopped in the shootout. Ruby stopped 2 of 3 Royals shooters.
O'Connor made 4 saves on 7 shots, and Ruby took the loss with 30 saves on 32 shots.
The Nailers went 2-for-4 on the power play, and 1-for-2 on the penalty kill.
• Jan. 27: vs. Fort Wayne, 5-4 loss
Another game, another high-scoring one-goal loss.
The Komets struck first on Sunday, and Alex Rauter's 10th of the season tied it in the first period. Lacroix scored his 12th goal of the season to take the lead in the second period, but it was a short-lived lead. The Komets scored twice in the second period to take a 3-2 lead.
The Komets scored twice more in the third period to take a 5-2 lead. Hirano scored his 13th goal of the season on the power play, and Lynch scored his 13th shorthanded with the extra attacker, but the Nailers weren't able to complete the comeback.
Sunday's game extended Lynch's and Hirano's point streaks to eight games.
Muse took the loss with 20 saves on 25 shots.
The Nailers' power play went 1-for-5, and the penalty kill went 3-for-3.
• Goals: Josephs, 20 in 26 games.
• Assists: Lynch, 32 in 43 games.
• Points: Lynch, 45 in 43 games.
Alex Rauter - Zac Lynch - Yushiroh Hirano
Troy Josephs - Michael Phillips - Alec Butcher
Renars Krastenbergs - Cedric Lacroix - Winston Day Chief
Johnny Austin - Dane Birks
Jake Schultz - Aaron Titcomb
Josh Couturier - Robbie Hall
• After this week, the Nailers remain fifth in the six-team Central Division with a record of 20-20-2-1.
• The Nailers’ power play sits in second place in the 27-team league at 22.5 percent, and the penalty kill is 19th in the league at 82.2 percent. The Nailers have the most power play goals (42) and shorthanded goals (13) in the league this season.
• The Nailers' homestand continues this week. They'll host the Indy Fuel (22-19-2-1) on Friday, and Kalamazoo Wings (20-20-0-2) on Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Hirano grabbed the loose puck and put it in the back of the net:
Phillips plucked the puck from the air, put it on his stick, and scored this backhander:
Rauter took advantage of his long reach for this goal:
Hirano showed off his shot:
WHEELING FUN THING
The Nailers had a postgame skate with the team on Sunday:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) January 27, 2019
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