WHEELING - This is one of the toughest times of year for professional hockey coaches. Most generally, this is the time when you lay the foundation for what will hopefully a championship season.
A big part of the equation is picking the players you think best fit your system and are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. That's a hard enough thing to do under ideal circumstances, something Wheeling Nailers coach Clark Donatelli doesn't have the benefit of as things currently stand.
You see, the NHL lockout has cost a big net over North America and the better part of Europe. Players unable to perform in the United States and Canada are going elsewhere, taking the jobs of others in the process. It's no different in the American Hockey League and the ECHL, where a lot of players figure to be playing a level below their capabilities.
''We don't know exactly who is coming or the numbers that are coming, but we are getting some players,'' Donatelli said earlier this week in the newly redesigned coaching off that he and first-year assistant Zach Sonnefeld inhabit. ''We'll probably find out on the Monday of the 8th (of Oct.).
''Definitely by then we'll know exactly who we're getting from Montreal and who we're getting from Pittsburgh.''
Could make things pretty interesting, or dull depending on your perspective, for about a week. The Nailers report to camp Tuesday, will have their physicals Wednesday morning and will be on the ice that afternoon. They'll play preseason games Friday in Cincinnati and Sunday at WesBanco Arena.
The Nailers have announced 12 players that are under contract, though a couple more have already signed. Of those 12 though, X are beginning in AHL camps. Zach Torquato, Scott Darling and Bobby Farnham are headed to Hamilton. Defenseman Peter Merth is going to Abbotsford.
''If the guys who go up to (camp) in the American League come back to Wheeling for whatever reason, we should have a strong team,'' Donatelli said. ''We're not done signing. We're still working on some guys now, but because of that unknown factor, we don't know how many guys we're getting from the AHL teams.
''The lockout affects us a the way that we probably will have guys that wouldn't be starting here in Wheeling. There's a trickle-down effect from from Pitt and Montreal going to the American League, and the trickle-down effect coming down to us is going to make our team better, and the league better as a whole.''
From this perspective, it's going to be in the best interest of the ECHL if they NHL doesn't play this year. I know what you're thinking, but hear me out.
Sure, the Nailers - just about everyone, really - are going to be loaded when the season kicks off. But what happens if the lockout ends halfway through the ECHL season? Teams league-wide are going to be stripped of the majority of their talent and it will be a mad dash to a free-agent frenzy, may the best team - er, most money - win.
''I don't know overall if it's better for us or the game of hockey, but here in Wheeling our goal is to develop players. So whomever we get down here we've got to develop them and get them ready for the next level,'' Donatelli said. ''hat never changes from a coach's standpoint. Our job is to develop players no matter who they are.
''Whether or not we're getting guys from Wilkes-Barre and Hamilton that we normally wouldn't get, it looks like on paper that is the case. But who's to say?
''We will have a good product on the ice here.''
Donatelli said signing guys to ECHL contracts hasn't been that easy given the circumstances, but noted that he's been up front with everyone.
''I think the agents and the players are informed of what's happening as far as harder to get to an AHL camp, being harder to get to an ECHL camp,'' he said. ''With the NHL not playing it makes it more competitive to get to an AHL camp, therefore it makes it more competitive to get into an ECHL camp; That trickle-down effect is real.
''We're really excited about the upcoming year.''
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net