WHEELING, W.Va. -- Penguins forward prospect Jan Drozg didn't exactly expect to begin his professional career with the Nailers.
Drozg, the Penguins' fifth-round pick in 2017 and a native of Maribor, Slovenia, is in his first season of professional hockey after spending the past two seasons essentially carrying his Shawinigan Cataractes on his back in the QMJHL.
Even though Drozg had a successful final season in juniors, leading his lowly Cataractes in scoring with 21 goals and 41 assists in 60 games, he finds himself in the ECHL, seemingly a victim of the numbers. I wrote over the summer a few times that with the high number of returning forwards on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the higher-than-usual influx of new forwards, including draft picks, college free agents and veteran signings, some good players were going to end up getting bumped down to Wheeling.
Drozg happened to be one of them.
"It was kind of a surprise if I'm honest, I was expecting to play in the American Hockey League," Drozg told me on Monday. "I was hoping I would get a chance to play with better players, like more experienced players who have a lot of pro hockey behind them, so they could teach me something new and help you develop. That's really important for young players to take that step. But right now they send me down here so I'll try to do my best here, and work hard and develop."
The message Drozg received from coaches this year was that they mainly want him to focus on learning how to be a pro and making that adjustment to the style of professional hockey, like any other rookie making their pro debut.
"They want to see me learn the process, how to play," he said. "Everything is a different process on how to play, from junior to professional teams. It's different. They want me to learn this as the first thing that they told me about."
The Nailers have played just four games this season, and Drozg has primarily played on the right side of the Nailers' top line. He scored his first professional goal this week in a 7-3 loss to the Fort Wayne Komets on Friday:
"That's always nice to score your first goal, it's always something special. I tried to watch it again but it was a bad camera angle so I couldn't watch it again," he laughed. "So that's kind of bad. But I was happy about it."
The goal is Drozg's only point so far through the four games, but he's found ways to stand out otherwise. One of Drozg's biggest assets is his speed, and he's been flying:
In this clip, you see Drozg's speed, followed by a nice move by him to just possess the puck until Cam Brown gets open:
Drozg has been playing on the power play, and has had some pretty great chances, like when he was denied by this sliding stop, with the puck just getting caught by the top of the goaltender's stick:
ECHL teams only carry three forward lines, so all forwards are guaranteed to rack up a lot of ice time during the games, especially players on the top line like Drozg. And with ECHL teams often playing stretches of three games in three days, as the Nailers did this week, it can get pretty exhausting. The workload is something Drozg is still adjusting to early on in the season.
"I like to have ice time," Drozg said. "But too much time it's not great either, because it's hard to work at 100 percent the full game. If you don't work 100 percent every game, every shift, you're not going to get better. And I want to get better this season. It's hard."
The style of play is different in the ECHL compared to the QMJHL, too. Obviously, one of the biggest differences between juniors and the pro game is obviously that one league is full of teenagers, and the ECHL is full of bigger, stronger, grown men.
"Juniors they have a lot of talented players," said Drozg. "It's kind of easier to play because you play with players who have pretty good hockey IQ. Here, guys are more stronger and faster. Both leagues have something good to learn from them."
At 6-feet-2 and 170 pounds, one of the things Drozg has to focus on this season will be adding weight and getting stronger, which will make it easier to play in the pro leagues. But at the same time, just as with a guy like Adam Johnson in Pittsburgh, when speed is one of a player's greatest assets he needs to focus on that weight being good weight, lean muscle, and not just bulk for the sake of bulk.
When I asked Drozg what is broader goal was this season, his answer was simple and predictable: Make it to the Wilkes-Barre. He's off to a slow start by his standards, but he's going to work toward turning that around and taking the next step.
"How the season starts, it's kind of a tough situation right now for me," he said. "But I'll try to pick it up as soon as possible and wait for the call up."
THE ROSTER MOVES
• Wilkes/Barre recalled forward Ryan Scarfo from Wheeling on Oct. 14, and forward Brandon Hawkins on Tuesday. Scarfo was scoreless in one game before the recall, and Hawkins scored two goals and two assists in four games.
• Forward Renars Krastenbergs has been on injured reserve since Oct. 9 and has not played this season.
• Consider donating to 11-year-old Milania, a fan in Wheeling who has been dealing with a severe motility disorder since birth. Her mother has been sharing some tough updates on their GoFundMe page.
Miracles 4 Milana https://t.co/BGtWQMhj0Q
— Jarrett Burton (@jarrettburton90) October 22, 2019
• Oct. 18 at Fort Wayne, 7-3 loss
The Nailers fell into a deep, quick hole on Friday, trailing 4-0 just 5:06 into the game. After Yushiroh Hirano scored for the Nailers and the Komets added another before the end of the period, the Nailers trailed 5-1 after 20.
Hawkins scored midway through the second period to bring the Nailers back within three, but the Komets scored twice more before the end of the middle frame.
Goaltender Alex D'Orio was pulled at the second intermission, and Jordan Ruby came out to start the third. Drozg scored the lone goal in the final frame, his first professional goal.
Hawkins led the team with four shots on goal in the loss.
D'Orio was credited with the loss for 23 saves on 30 shots. Ruby made nine saves on nine shots in relief.
• Oct. 19 vs. Indy, 4-3 win
The Nailers got off to a much better start on Saturday in the home opener, with Alec Butcher opening the scoring 5:59 into the game. The Fuel evened the score at 17:53, but Cam Brown regained the lead in the final minute of the opening period.
The Fuel tied the game 2:02 into the second period, and Butcher scored his second of the game to again regain the lead. The Fuel answered at 15:47 to tie the game, and the score remained 3-3 entering the third period.
Defenseman Blake Siebenaler scored for the Nailers with 24 seconds remaining in the game to secure the first win of the season.
Hawkins again led the team in shots, with four.
Ruby earned the win with 26 saves on 29 shots.
• Oct. 20 vs. Indy, 4-3 win
The Nailers got off to another slow start on Sunday, trailing 2-0 at the end of the first period. Cam Brown scored the lone goal of the second period to bring the Nailers back within one.
Hirano scored 57 seconds into the third period to even the score, but the fuel regained a 3-2 lead at 9:44. Hawkins tied the game at 13:16, and Hirano scored the game-winner with 26 seconds remaining.
Cam Brown and Hirano are the only players with points in all four games to start the season.
Cam Brown and Aaron Titcomb led the Nailers in shots, with five each.
D'Orio earned his first professional win with 18 saves on 21 shots.
• Goals: Hirano, three in four games
• Assists: Hirano, Brown, Powell, Saracino, four in four games
• Points: Hirano, seven in four games
Nick Saracino -- Cam Brown -- Jan Drozg
Alec Butcher -- Myles Powell -- Yushiroh Hirano
Willy Smith -- Chris Brown -- Brandon Hawkins
Macoy Erkamps -- Brandon Lubin
Steve Johnson -- Blake Siebenaler
Craig Skudalski -- Aaron Titcomb
• The Nailers' record of 2-2 has them in a four-way tie for first place in the Central Division. With the tie breakers of games played and goal differential, the Nailers rank fourth.
• The power play is operating at 17.6 percent, ranking 14th in the league. The penalty kill is at 85 percent, 10th in the league.
• The Nailers will have back-to-back home games this weekend. They'll host the Tulsa Oilers (1-5) on Friday, and the Reading Royals (2-2-1) on Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Cam Brown fired this shot from the slot:
The play that led to this goal from Hirano in the crease began with Powell forcing a turnover in the offensive zone:
Hawkins has a quick release:
Hirano's second of the game against Indy came from his spot on the right point on the power play:
SAVE OF THE WEEK(S)
This series of saves from D'Orio are from the first week of the season, in the season-opener in Cincinnati:
WHEELING FUN THING
D'Orio got his mask design updated with some cartoon penguins and a neat Canadian flag design with Italian roots:
[caption id="attachment_905197" align="aligncenter" width="640"] ALEX D'ORIO / INSTAGRAM[/caption]
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