It's never easy for a coach to take over a team in the middle of a season.
There's no training camp and no time to set out goals and get to you know your players. Plus, there's little hope of achieving much success, considering a mid-season hiring means you're replacing a mid-season firing.
Wheeling Nailers coach Greg Puhalski
did the best he could when he replaced Glenn Patrick
on Jan. 2, 2008. When the regular season concluded, however, the Nailers found themselves in the North Division cellar with just 51 points.
These days, though, things are different. Puhalski ran his first training camp in Wheeling last month. He set his goals for the young club. He instilled a confidence that was nowhere to be found when the 2007-08 season got under way.
Puhalski -- who won 162 games in four seasons with the Toledo Storm from 1994-98 -- experienced immediate success in his first opening weekend with the Nailers, as Wheeling reeled off two victories to begin the 2008-09 season.
Opening night at WesBanco Arena was certainly a pleasant surprise, as the Nailers pulled off a see-saw 7-5 victory last Friday against the Cincinnati Cyclones, the reigning Kelly Cup champions. Wheeling followed that with a 4-2 win at Johnstown the next night.
"First game of the year, I'll tell you it was a wild game," Puhalski told NHL.com. "It was a very entertaining game, especially for the first game of the year. That's as entertaining as I've ever seen as far as a first game, and it's my 15th year as a coach. It had lots of goals, a few fights and some good hits. The defensive play might have been a little shaky on both ends, but it was a very entertaining game. It went right down to the wire."
The ability to have Puhalski there from the beginning wasn't the only change for the Nailers coming into this season. Puhalski basically revamped Wheeling's entire roster, which consists of more than 10 rookies. No doubt, the desire of these young players to move up to the American Hockey League will lead to solid efforts on game nights.
"We knew we were going to have a whole new club as far as personnel compared to last year," Puhalski said. "With that being said, our expectations have been renewed as far as our standards and our goals and the way we want to come out and play. For us, it was a good start toward our aspirations."
In order for the Nailers to continue on the road to success -- they host the Cyclones again on Friday before the Trenton Devils visit for a pair of games -- Puhalski said his team must consistently put forth an all-hands-on-deck approach. Wheeling is one of three teams in the North that already has four points in the standings, along with Johnstown and Elmira.
Judging by what he witnessed last weekend, Puhalski is confident his young squad will continue to play an energetic, winning style.
"Over half of our roster is first-year players," Puhalski said. "A good thing for our team is we got a lot of contributions from everyone. I don't care what level you're talking, it's always a nice thing to see.
"Generally with a younger player, you're going to see some more mistakes. But you're also generally going to see some good enthusiasm and energy. We want to maintain that great enthusiasm and maybe just temper a few other things and help them get along to where they need to be."
One thing is certain -- Puhalski is where he wants to be. The Nailers' coach said he is much more comfortable in Wheeling now then when he first took the reins from Patrick. This truly is his club now.
"When you're coming in through halfway through the year, you're generally limited as to the type of players you're able to get or acquire," Puhalski said. "It's harder to recruit when you're in midseason. As a coach coming in, it's always nice to kind of provide your own stamp on how you want things done."
"I like the idea of having things done in a certain way. I think it just leans itself to accountability, not only for myself, but for our players. They need to be responsible for their actions. When you're there at the start, then you have a greater influence on making sure that happens."
-- Greg Puhalski
And now that Puhalski has experienced what it's like to take over a team in the midst of its season, he hopes he never has to again.
"I had never taken over a team -- prior to last year -- halfway through the year," Puhalski said. "I like the idea of having things done in a certain way. I think it just leans itself to accountability, not only for myself but for our players. They need to be responsible for their actions. When you're there at the start, then you have a greater influence on making sure that happens."
So far, his players are buying into what he preaches. Puhalski has returned that faith, evidenced by his belief that the Nailers could contend in the North Division all season long.
"I like our hockey club," Puhalski said. "I like the way we work everyday in practice. I believe if we keep our nose to the grindstone, good things will happen."
Around the ECHL
-- The Idaho Steelheads acquired forward Justin Bourne
from the Reading Royals in exchange for future considerations. Bourne, who had 31 points in 50 games with the Utah Grizzlies last season, is the son of former New York Islanders
center Bob Bourne. … The Florida Everblades received forward Ryan Lang
from AHL Houston, while defenseman James DeLory
was reassigned by the Florida Panthers
. … Kevin Colley
earned his first professional win as a coach when Utah defeated Idaho in a shootout, 3-2.
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.