Something not enough people talk about when comes to former college players making the adjustment to professional hockey is the change that happens away from the rink.
The pro game is obviously more skilled than the college game, the players are bigger and stronger, and the schedule (and sometimes travel) is much more grueling. But off the ice, there's a huge difference. There's very little structure.
That's one of the biggest lessons defenseman Johnny Austin has learned in his first season of professional hockey.
Austin, 23, signed an AHL-level contract with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last summer after spending four years at the University of Connecticut. With Wilkes-Barre's defensive depth this year, not many reinforcements have been needed from Wheeling throughout the season. So, Austin has spent the entire year thus far in the ECHL with the Nailers, learning how to be a pro.
"In college, our days were pretty regimented," he told me this week. "We'd go on the road and we'd get an itinerary for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and it'd be like, 'Wake up at 9 a.m., have breakfast at 10, meetings, stretch, go to the rink at this time, do this at this time.' In pro it's different. It's like, 'This is game time. Be ready for the game.' That's a little bit different coming out of college, that structure is pretty easy to live with, you can't really deviate from it."
In addition to the schedule, pro players are pretty much on their own when it comes to meals. That can be a big shock coming from college, where many meals are provided for the team.
Wheeling is a pretty inexperienced team this year, with many players in their first professional season. For Austin, it helps to have a veteran blueliner like Danny Fick to look to for guidance.
"It's awesome just to see what (Fick) does in his routine every single day," said Austin. "The kind of work ethic he brings is something where, obviously he's been in the league for a long time and he's done very well, so you kind of look to that as a rookie, you try to emulate what he does. His work ethic is probably one of the best I've seen out of anyone I've played with, just in terms of coming to the rink and giving it 100 percent every single time."
Austin hasn't had the smoothest start to his pro career. After Wheeling's first game of the season, he was suspended for two games for a kneeing infraction ("Which is pretty atypical of the style of play I play," he clarified.) Since Wheeling's first three games were all a week apart, it meant he wouldn't play a game for two weeks. Five games after his return, he suffered a concussion that kept him out from Nov. 13 to Dec. 31.
"My first season really wasn't going that well, I had played like six games in the first three months," he recalled. "I was sitting there, essentially just rusty. Hopping back into the swing of things, especially when other guys have been playing and gotten into the groove of playing, it's pretty tough. The lines have been developed, guys' roles on the team have been developed. I come back, where do I belong? You have to sort through that, that's tough."
Now that Austin is healthy and getting into his own groove, he's looking more like the player he was in college. His senior year of college he recorded four goals and 15 assists in 35 games, and this year he's nearly matching those totals with three goals and 13 assists in 35 games, ranking him third in scoring among Nailers defensemen this season.
While Austin would like to continue to grow his offensive game, he says he still prides himself in just being reliable and responsible defensively first and foremost.
"If you're out there and you're a liability," he said, "Regardless of if you're producing points or not, what's the point of putting you out there?"
Austin admitted to having some nerves while playing early in the year, saying "It's hard not to think like, 'Wow, these are my first professional games. This is pro hockey.'" But as the season has gone on, and he is picking up some points and becoming more responsible defensively, his confidence grows.
Austin gained some professional experience prior to signing in Wheeling. After his senior year ended last spring, he signed an amateur tryout contract with the Laval Rocket of the AHL and was able to play in nine games. That short stint has helped his confidence this season.
"Just being able to conceptualize the fact that I've played in the American League is great for me," he said. "It's supposed to be a step up, so being sent down to the East Coast you feel almost like, 'Alright, I've played at this level, I'm going to be fine here.' That's really all mental. Both leagues are very good, and the competition is very high no matter what league you're in."
At 5-feet-10, 195 pounds, Austin is the smallest defenseman on the team. Hockey is evolving to a more speed and skill-based game, rather than size and physicality, although those changes are happening more slowly in the minor leagues. Austin is a good skater and a puck-moving defenseman, but he still wants to focus on not only getting stronger, but learning how to use the size he does have effectively.
"If you're smaller, your speed has to be there," he said. "But there's a certain strength threshold that you obviously need to have. Once you're there, once you have enough strength, it's more about tactically, how do you play against a guy who is 6-6, 240 pounds when I'm nowhere near that big? There's things defensively you do, where you play one guy differently than you'd play a guy who is my own size. It's just kind of learning those things."
As the ECHL regular season nears a close, it's looking more and more likely that the Nailers are going to be taking an early summer. Austin pointed to more goal scoring as something he'd like to work on for next season, which would come with working on his shot placement and just attempting more shots. He'll look to take all the lessons he learned on and off the ice in his rookie year, and make a push to stick in the AHL next season.
THE ROSTER MOVES
• The Nailers signed Swedish college free agent forward Nicolas Erb Ekholm out of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Erb Ekholm, 23, had six goals and seven assists in 33 games as a senior. He centered the Nailers' second line in his scoreless debut.
• The Nailers also signed 25-year-old Lucas Kohls out of Division III University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Kohls plays both defense and forward, but I believe primarily forward. He hasn't played with the Nailers yet since signing.
• Defenseman Blake Siebenaler was injured on March 15 and placed on injured reserve, keeping him out a minimum of two weeks.
• Defenseman Kevin Spinozzi suffered an upper-body injury on March 10, and returned on March 22 after four games.
• The Cincinnati Cyclones (47-12-4-3) have clinched the Central Division title.
• March 20: at Cincinnati, 4-1 loss
The Cyclones opened the scoring midway through the first period.
The Cyclones extended their lead 7:21 into the second period with a power play tally. 34 seconds later, Zac Lynch went on a shorthanded breakaway and Michael Phillips tapped in the rebound for his 17th goal of the season.
The Cyclones added a power play tally and empty net goal in the third period to take the 4-1 win.
Matt O'Connor took the loss with 30 saves on 33 shots.
The Nailers went 0-for-2 on the power play and 3-for-5 on the penalty kill.
• March 22: vs. Indy, 5-2 win
Renars Krastenbergs and Yushiroh Hirano each scored their 17th goals of the season in the first period. The Fuel scored a power play goal in the final minute of the the first period to cut the Nailers' lead to one.
After a scoreless second period, the Fuel tied the game with another power play goal 3:05 into the third period. Phillips regained the lead with his 18th of the year, a power play tally, and Cedric Lacroix extended the lead with another power play goal, his 20th goal of the year. Robbie Hall scored an empty net goal to seal the win.
Jordan Ruby took the win with 25 saves on 27 shots.
The Nailers went 2-for-5 on the power play and 5-for-7 on the penalty kill.
• March 23: at Kalamazoo, 3-2 loss
The Wings opened the scoring 8:47 into the first period, and Winston Day Chief tied the game with his 14th of the year. The Wings retook the lead in the final minute of the first period.
Mark Petaccio scored his sixth goal of the year, the lone goal of the second period, to tie the game. The Wings scored the eventual game-winner 2:17 into the third period.
Ruby took the loss with 33 saves on 36 shots.
The Nailers went 0-for-2 on the power play and 3-for-3 on the penalty kill.
• Goals: Troy Josephs, 21 in 32 games.
• Assists: Lynch, 46 in 61 games.
• Points: Lynch, 61 in 61 games.
Alec Butcher - Zac Lynch - Mark Petaccio
Mike Fazio - Michael Phillips - Yushiroh Hirano
Renars Krastenbergs - Cedric Lacroix - Winston Day Chief
Robbie Hall - Danny Fick
Kevin Spinozzi - Dane Birks
Johnny Austin - Aaron Titcomb
• After this week, the Nailers remain in last place in the six-team Central Division with a record of 29-29-6-2, six points out of a playoff spot. It's not looking good:
3. Fort Wayne 74(7 GR)
4. Kalamazoo 72(7 GR)
5. Indy 68(6 GR)
6. Wheeling 66(6 GR)
Best hope for Wheeling is to win as many as possible, squeeze past Indy and hope Kalamazoo poops their pants as they finish with all 7 on the road.
— James Peklicz (@Nailers_Off_Ice) March 25, 2019
I believe that last part is a technical term.
• The Nailers’ power play sits in fifth in the league at 20.4 percent, and the penalty kill is 22nd in the league at 80.3 percent. The Nailers have the fourth-most power play goals (56) and the most shorthanded goals (19) in the league this season.
• The Nailers will host the Fort Wayne Komets (32-23-4-6) on Friday evening, then visit the Reading Royals (29-28-4-6) on Saturday night. They'll host the Kalamazoo Wings (34-27-2-2) on Sunday afternoon.
Including this week, there are six games remaining in the regular season.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Lynch capitalized on a Cyclones giveaway and went on a shorthanded breakaway, and Phillips finished the job:
Day Chief scored this one timer:
Petaccio snuck one five-hole:
WHEELING FUN THING
Aaron Titcomb made a young fan's day:
Puck ✅ ‘Dad, stick please’🏒 pic.twitter.com/B7tOo2bc3s
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) March 23, 2019
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