Gladiators get stronger
New additions, attitudes creating excitement

He's a last defense and he's where it all starts.

It seems a goaltender can be the beginning and the end in many ways.

Over the last four seasons, Gwinnett Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle has only occasionally been able to sign his own goalie. As the ECHL affiliate of the NHL Thrashers and American Hockey League Chicago, one, if not both, Gwinnett netminders have been assigned from above.

But with fewer goalies in the Thrashers' system this year, Pyle was left with the rare opportunity to bring in his own guy. He went after - and got - Craig Kowalski, a free agent after playing the past three years under contract with NHL Carolina.

Kowalski was assigned to Florida, the Hurricanes' ECHL affiliate and Gwinnett's division rival, for the majority of his professional career. This year, the 26-year-old Michigan native will be paired with second-year pro Dan Turple between the pipes. Turple, a 6-foot-6 22-year-old, was drafted and signed by the Thrashers, and played in Gwinnett last season.

"It could end up blowing up in our face - (Kowalski) could do really well and move up," Pyle said. "If that's the case, that's the way it goes.

"But bottom line, if this team plays with heart in front of him like they can - in front of either one of those kids - I think we'll be in good shape. Because we're going to need those guys to make some huge saves for us. But I like the idea of being able to bring K-wol in and giving him the opportunity to see what the grass is like on the other side."

Kowalski is a known quantity to his new teammates and fans. He was a college teammate of defensemen Jim Jackson, Jamie Milam and forward Dirk Southern at Northern Michigan.

"Craig is a huge asset to our team," Jackson said. "He's one of the best goaltenders in the league. We have to be out there every game backing him up. We know he's going to do his job. So we have to do our job.

"He's a good leader in the room. We're lucky to have him on the team."

Gladiators' captain Mike Vigilante is a few years older than Kowalski, but having both grown up in the Detroit area, Vigilante has heard about him for many years - and played against him for several seasons as well.

"He's always been a high-profile player," Vigilante said. "That's where it all begins, in this game, your goalie out. And knowing you have him - and Turple - in net, it gives us confidence. We're going to get burnt sometimes and you've got to have a solid goalie that can bail you out, and even win games for us. We're excited."

The defense

Kowalski likes what he sees in front of him. Having faced one of the ECHL's most prolific offenses for years, he now finds himself watching it in practice.

"Believe it or not, I think they might be better offensively than they were last year," Kowalski said. "But I think the major difference is we've got some good 'D' this year. We have some strong guys, a couple of stay-at-home guys - whereas last year, they had a lot more run-and-gun type defensemen.

"I think it's a good mix. A couple of run-and-gunners and a couple of stay-at-homers."

Defensively, Pyle re-signed Jackson and Milam. Jon Awe, who was with Gwinnett the last two seasons and the 2006-07 ECHL Defenseman of the Year, signed an AHL contract with the Houston Aeros this year. He went to Aeros training camp, but was a surprise addition for Pyle after being assigned to the ECHL.

Also on the blueline are Jeff Mason, who is entering his third pro season after playing with Augusta and Long Beach, and rookies Dinos Stamoulis and Ryan Mahrle. Jon Sitko, who was acquired in a trade last season, was placed on the 7-day injured reserve Wednesday.

"There's some physical guys here," Vigilante said. "Most of these defensemen can really wheel. Jeff (Pyle) has always been a guy that focuses on a finesse style, playing the game right instead of going out and gooning it up."

With the rule changes of a few years back, defensemen have to be mobile because holding and interference is no longer kosher.

"Before you could run at guys, you could hook and hold them," Pyle said. "Now you can't. You've got to be able to have quick feet.

"The bigger guys can't keep up consistently. The littler guys, yeah they're going to get beat up at times, but they'll come back. I like the way we're set up."

The offense

The defense is young, but the goaltending is solid and there's never been any question about the Gladiators offensive capabilities.

Vigilante is returning for his fourth season as a Gladiator and is coming off his most productive year with 65 points. Two former Gwinnett standouts are back, 2005-06 ECHL MVP Jeff Campbell and 30-goal scorer Derek Nesbitt. Campbell started last year with Gwinnett, but played most of the season in the AHL. Nesbitt won a Kelly Cup after being traded by the Gladiators to Idaho at the start of 2006-07.

The rest of the forward lines are new, including four rookies - Mike Hamilton, Andy Brandt, who was with Gwinnett at the end of last season, Stuart MacRae and Myles Stoesz (assigned by Atlanta).

Southern and Ryan Walsh are entering their second pro seasons. Southern was with Augusta last year and Walsh was in Germany.

Rounding out the corps are two four-year veterans, Lou Dickenson and Bryson Busniuk.

"I'm pretty impressed with what we've got down here right now," Vigilante said. "There's a lot of good rookies that are working hard.

"I think we're going to be a fast team. I'm not going to get excited until the season starts because everyone always raves about, 'Oh we're going to be really good.' It's one thing to be a practice player. It's another thing to be in the big games and do the little things that are going to allow your team to win."

Gwinnett has led the league in goal production for the last two years and never been lower than fourth. Last year, however, the Gladiators were also fifth worst in goals allowed.

"This year it looks like we have a lot of speed on the team and guys with good work ethics," Jackson said. "It looks like we're a little more defensive oriented. We're working a lot more on helping our goaltenders."