By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The Gwinnett Gladiators have established a reputation for fast, flashy play over their five seasons in the ECHL.
No team has scored more goals over that span and the Gladiators have never missed the playoffs.
But Gwinnett doesn’t own a league championship trophy either.
The Gladiators made it to the Kelly Cup finals in 2005-06, the first of two straight seasons they led the ECHL in goals scored. They were a respectable seventh in goals allowed. Alaska, however, was second both in goals scored and allowed and the Aces’ defense proved to be too much for even Gwinnett to break in the final series.
So after five years of skill and speed, Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle took a different tack during the offseason recruiting process. He went after players with more toughness, more grit.
The loss of certain players fed into that roster development. Pyle knew he wasn’t going to have Jeff Campbell or Lou Dickenson, who both made the jump overseas. Derek Nesbitt had signed an NHL deal and Pyle was expecting former ECHL MVP Brad Schell to stick in the AHL.
“We lost so many big skill guys, like Soupy and Scheller, Nessie,” Pyle said. “You lose all those guys in one shot, Lou, four of your main guys really and then right off the get-go.
“But in the end, we never got anywhere with those guys,” Pyle said. “We did well.”
“Well” isn’t good enough. “Well” isn’t a championship.
“So why not try something different?” Pyle said. “Now it’s just a matter of it’s going to take us time to get in our systems more, get guys down (from the AHL) and get confident. Which is obviously going to take a little while.”
Fans can certainly expect to see more fights, but that’s not really what Pyle was after.
He wanted players that would be physical in the corners and aggressive on the forecheck. He wanted players that would be more defensively responsible, that wouldn’t give up so many odd-man rushes.
There’s still skill and the power play, one of the main weapons in Gwinnett’s goal-scoring arsenal, remains the same. But make no mistake, this Gwinnett team breaks the mold.
It’s less firepower and more powder keg.
“It’s definitely different than last year,” returning defenseman Jeff Mason said. “We’re a bigger team, probably a more physical team.
“I think we’re going to be real solid defensively. We’ll probably rely a little bit more on defense than on putting up a touchdown out there.”
Some of the new additions are recognizable names from within the division.
Dan Sullivan comes to Gwinnett after playing the last two seasons for dismal Pensacola. Sullivan, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound winger, has racked up the penalty minutes all through his pro career. Pyle believes he’s got a guy, though, that will work hard down low and create offensive opportunities.
Sullivan is unabashedly excited about being in Gwinnett. To start the season, Pyle has him on the top line with speedy rookie Pat Bateman and Bruce Graham, who has played the last three seasons in Charlotte while under contract with the New York Rangers.
“A guy like myself, for instance, I’ve never been just given an opportunity to be on the power play, be on a top line,” said Sullivan, whose had a career-best 41 points in 60 games with Augusta in 2005-06. “It’s always been something I’ve had to work for. To actually be given the opportunity, it’s kind of up to you now.”
Sullivan is taking his responsibilities as a leader seriously. He was captain last season in Pensacola, but this is a much different situation.
“Here, I’m actually learning,” Sullivan said frankly. “I go to the (white) board and his voice just grabs me all the time. I’m right in the front row. I have to pay attention because there’s so much detail to what we have to do out there.
“As an older guy, as a leader, if I (mess) it up then we’re screwed because you’ve got guys looking at me. You have to know your routes because you don’t want to have to keep stopping practice just to fix mistakes.”
Sullivan might be the posterchild for the new-look Gladiators, but he’s not alone. Pyle brought in Graham, who has shown some impressive offensive skills and, at 6-foot-6, adds quite a bit of size to the lineup.
“We have a lot of smaller, faster guys down low,” said veteran defenseman Chris Cava, another offseason acquisition. “If they just keep their legs moving, the (opposing defense) is going to have to hold on, to clutch and grab you and they can’t do that. So I think it’s our benefit that we have those kind of players that are willing to work hard for 20-25 seconds and then get off. That’s how you’re drawing penalties.
“And when you have bigger guys, it’s tougher to contain them. You’re always trying hook them or whatever, and that’s where Bruce comes in and Sully. They’re big bodies out there and they create a lot of space for guys, too.”
The defense saw a similar transformation. Mason and brawny rookie Phil Youngclaus have the speed to jump up into the offense. But don’t expect to see nearly as much of that as in past years. The flip side of that coin is Gwinnett shouldn’t be giving up as many breakaways when the defense gets caught behind a play.
“That’s how Jeff coaches though – it’s pretty much all or nothing,” said Cava, who has played against the Gladiators for several seasons as a member of the Mississippi Sea Wolves. “It’s a different kind of systems and it gives the opportunity for guys to get in the game more, not just sitting back.
“But you’ve got to be smart about it. The games are so different these days. They’re won and lost on the power play and penalty kill. And I think special teams are going to be huge for us this year.”
Gwinnett scored four power play goals in its lone exhibition game, proving that aspect of the offense hasn’t changed at all.
“I think we’re tough enough, for sure,” Pyle said. “And we have enough skill, we’re just going to have to be smarter. With a lot of new guys, we’re going to have to be really disciplined. And our commitment’s got to be good.”
The Gladiators open the season with a light schedule, just four games in the first two weeks, which is probably good considering how many new faces were added. Learning the systems will take a little while, but the general opinion as training camp wrapped up was things were going well.
“In our preseason game, I saw a lot of good things,” Cava said. “We’re going to be a team that’s not going to be backing down from anybody. We’ve got guys that can put the puck in the net. I think our work ethic is going to win us hockey games.
“We’re not the most skilled, but we’re a team that’s not going to be backing down from anybody and we’re going to be playing 110 percent every night. Those are the kind of guys Jeff wanted to bring in. I think we’re just going to be a team that has to hold teams to like two goals a night and win like that.”