WHEELING - Clark Donatelli knows it's coming. The Wheeling Nailers coach simply doesn't know when and how many players he'll lose when American Hockey League teams come calling, a byproduct of the end of the NHL lockout.
Speaking after practice Thursday at WesBanco Arena, Donatelli said he's in a wait-and-see mode as the Nailers (15-13-6 - 36) prepare for a three-game weekend. Wheeling plays host to Atlantic Division-leading Reading tonight and Saturday, then welcomes South Carolina on Sunday.
''We don't even know when (NHL) camp starts,'' Donatelli said. ''We got Peter Child here and he's passed his physical so that will make seven 'D' for us. I'm anticipating losing at least one or two.
The Nailers are still unsure of how the end of the NHL lockout will affect them. Some players will be heading to the AHL.
''I hope not, but it would be good for the guys.''
With Andrew Hotham being signed by Oklahoma City later Thursday, the Nailers were down to six defensemen.
Carl Sneep will certainly vacate the premises and head to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Guys like Peter Merth and Cody Wild could also be in play via free-agent deals. If they leave, and whether it will be long or short term is part of the problem facing Donatelli and assistant coach Zach Sonnefeld.
''It's depending on each team and how many guys they want to bring to camp,'' Donatelli said. ''Each team's probably going to have their own philosophy on the six or seven days they have without a preseason game. It's going to be interesting how many guys go to camp.
''There's going to be a round of games - the first five or 10 - and it's a matter of how everyone's doing in terms of injuries and things like that. It's a trickle-up effect with the NHL starting and the AHL having to supply them.''
The Nailers plan to have defenseman Reid McNeill and forward Adam Payerl back in the lineup this weekend, and the coaching staff said barring another rash of injuries the Nailers seem well prepared for whatever is thrown their way.
''There's four teams - Montreal, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre and Hamilton - that we are ultimately supplying,'' Donatelli said. ''It makes that factor a little bit higher that we'll be losing more players.''
With the way the Baby Penguins have had difficulty scoring goals this season (84 in 35 games), it wouldn't be out of the real of possibility for them to give Chris Barton or Paul Crowder a look. Barton has netted nine goals in 15 games, while Crowder has a team-leading 14, including four in his last three games.
''We do have a lot of good players - Merthy and those guys who are valuable with their (ECHL) contracts,'' Donatelli said. ''That's why those guys come to Wheeling, is to get to the next level.
''It's a great opportunity.''
In the meantime, the Nailers have to find a way to concentrate on what they can control, which is battling for a playoff spot in an air-tight Eastern Conference. Wheeling is one point out of the eighth and final postion, but just nine back of fourth-place Greenville.
''We've got one game in hand and we've got to win it,'' Donatelli said. ''One or two, or even three points is a big difference.
''We're here at home and we've got to get as many wins as we can, especially against division opponents.''
That starts tonight against a Royals team that is considerably different than the one the Nailers lost to 3-1 on Sunday. Most notably goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who is likely to remain in the AHL the rest of the season.
''I think those Reading guys are going to keep coming back and forth,'' Donatelli said. ''They still have four of the six 'D' and they brought another guy in.
''They've got some good forwards.''
The Stingrays will be busing in from Trenton late Saturday night for a 2 p.m. skate.
''We need to jump on them early in the first period,'' Donatelli said. ''We're going to be coming off two with Reading, but we're at home. Sunday will be a big game.''