By Leif Skodnick
Special To ECHL.com
Wheeling Nailers head coach Pat Bingham knows what it takes be a defenseman in professional hockey.
“You have to be accountable and responsible in every situation,” said Bingham, who played seven professional seasons as a defenseman, including five in the ECHL with Hampton Roads, Nashville, and Richmond.
One of his young players, 21-year-old defenseman Alex Rouleau, has been assigned to Wheeling for a second season by the Pittsburgh Penguins to develop his game under Bingham.
Accountability and responsibility are two of the things that Rouleau, who has four assists, a plus-minus rating of -4 and 40 penalty minutes in 19 games, will learn in Wheeling.
“I want to come in here and work hard,” said the native of Mont Laurier, Quebec. “I think that is the best way to improve.”
Rouleau, who appeared in 14 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League last season, certainly will have the chance to work hard.
“It’s (Pittsburgh Vice President and General Manager) Craig Patrick’s decision, to have him here playing every night rather than in the AHL where he’d be playing a more marginal role,” stated Bingham. “Coaches want to win games, and win one-goal games, and to do that, sometimes you don’t throw the 21-year-old out there.
“In our case, he’s out there all the time. Down here, he gets to play every third shift, he kills penalties, and gets time on the power play,” Bingham continued. “He’s getting a chance to work out his game and play in all the key situations, which is what the Penguins want.”
The veteran of four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is learning the nuances of the professional game.
“Just the fact it’s professional hockey, it’s different,” said Rouleau, who was selected in the third round (96th overall) by the Penguins in the 2001 National Hockey League Entry Draft. “I need to improve aspects of my game, and I’d like to improve my speed and puck control.”
Being a defenseman in the Penguins organization during the current NHL lockout has put Rouleau in the middle of a numbers game, as he is one of nine defensemen under contract at either the AHL or NHL level.
“The American Hockey League is arguably the strongest it’s ever been with the lockout,” Bingham said. “I think [him being assigned to Wheeling] it’s partly due to the lockout and partly because they have a lot of defensemen.
“They want to win up there too,” Bingham noted about Wilkes/Barre Scranton, who made a run to last year’s Calder Cup Finals. “If you’ve got too many young guys, especially on the blue line, it makes it difficult to win up there.”
That does not mean that Rouleau does not have more responsibility this year. As a player returning from last season’s Nailers squad that finished the season just one point shy of the Brabham Cup, awarded to the ECHL’s regular season champion, the young defenseman will be expected to take on some responsibility as a leader.
“There’s more responsibility for him this year,” stated Bingham, who was named ECHL Coach of the Year in 2004 after leading Wheeling to their first playoff berth in six seasons. “It’s tough to take a 21-year-old kid and put that leadership responsibility on his shoulders and say ‘You were here last year, you know our program, you know it takes what to be successful, and now let’s show the rest of these guys.'”
“I don’t know if I am down here because of the lockout,” said Rouleau, who scored four points (3g-1a) with Wheeling last year. “But I am down here having fun and working hard and that’s a good way to improve my game.”
“We just want to make him mentally, emotionally and physically prepared,” stated the coach. “That way when he gets another chance to play in the AHL, he’s ready for it. It’s a win-win situation. It’s all part of the developmental program, and we’re happy to have him.”