WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – The AHL recently announced that its season will not begin until Feb. 5, and the NHL still has yet to make indication as to when it will resume play after handing out the Stanley Cup in September.
However, one team in the Penguins organization is set to take the ice in a little more than a month.
The Wheeling Nailers’ 2020-21 season kicks off at home on Saturday, Dec. 12, and player signings have been pouring in over the past few weeks as the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate prepares to play under new leadership. New head coach Mark French will step behind the bench to lead the Nailers in their 29th season, a season that not only provides a new look for the Nailers, but also the league as a whole.
In an attempt to play amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the ECHL introduced a two-phase restart, which will feature 13 of the league’s 26 active teams (including Wheeling) dropping the puck in December.
The remaining clubs will have the ability to opt into the season in mid-January and play a 62-game schedule, and the teams that started in December will log a full 72-game slate.
As a result of this quirky restart, only the first 10 games of the Nailers season have been released, but that hasn’t stopped the hype from building around West Virginia.
“People see the roster, and they have a reason to be excited,” said Wheeling broadcaster D.J. Abisalih. “Not only do [the Nailers] look good on paper, but I think the league as a whole is going to be a lot stronger than it typically is based on a couple of European leagues and a couple of teams in our league not playing. I think fans are very excited about the way things look right now.”
French will be at the helm for his first time in Wheeling, but he’s a coach who brings plenty of experience – and success – to the Nailers’ locker room.
French has logged 16 seasons as a head coach in the United States, his native Canada, and even overseas. He lifted the Calder Cup as an assistant coach for the Hershey Bears in 2009, and then captured the AHL’s top prize again a year later when he assumed duties as the head coach.
“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s won,” Abisalih said of the Nailers’ new bench boss. “Whether its winning championships like he won in Hershey, whether it’s having winning seasons like he did in Calgary (of the Western Hockey League) or in Europe, the point is, this guy knows how to coach a hockey team.”
French wasted little time leaving his mark on his new team’s roster, making an impressive series of player signings that have bolstered Wheeling’s lineup throughout the offseason.
He scooped up a series of college free agents, led by impressive prospects like Pittsburgh products Luke Lynch and Matt Miller. French also recruited talent from Europe, bringing in Kevin Dufour and Drydn Dow after they tore up the U.K.’s EIHL as members of the Dundee Stars.
Unsatisfied with those moves, he also captured 12-year veteran and consistent 50-point producer Michael Pelech while also swinging a trade for defenseman Chad Duchesne.
It’s an impressive crop of new talent, for sure, a group that French and the rest of the Nailers faithful hope is good enough to put Wheeling back in the playoffs for the first time since the club’s thrilling run to the Kelly Cup Final in 2016.
There is currently little clarity on whether or not players on NHL or AHL contracts can be assigned to ECHL teams once the two-phased restart begins, but Wheeling has made it clear through their maneuverings that they want to make a bang in their season opener regardless of whether it gets reinforcements from above or not.
The first of the Nailers’ initial 10 games will take place on Dec. 12 at WesBanco Arena against the Indy Fuel.
- Matt Alfaro (F)
- Cody Bradley (F)
- Drydn Dow (D)
- Tyler Drevitch (F)
- Chad Duchesne (D)
- Kevin Dufour (F)
- Andrew Gaus (F)
- Shane Kuzmeski (D)
- Dylan MacPherson (D)
- Matt Miller (D)
- Luke Lynch (F)
- Michael Pelech (F)
- Alec Butcher (F)
- Brad Drobot (F)
- Marc-Olivier Duquette (D)
- Will Smith (F)