Gladiators camp deep with talent

DULUTH - A quick tic-tac-toe passing play and Adam Berti roofed the puck over goalie Josh Johnson.

The chemistry, the skill and most noticeably the passing at the Gwinnett Gladiators' training camp was much improved compared to this time last year.

The second day of on-ice workouts concluded Saturday afternoon with a 3-on-3 scrimmage at the IceForum in Duluth and it finished with a boisterous celebration from the winning side.

The enthusiasm is expected. All things are possible with the season still two weeks away.

But the early returns are extremely promising.

The Gladiators once again have the kind of roster that earned them their greatest success. There's a good balance of youth and experience, size and skill.

"It's sounds kind of cliche, but the biggest strength we have right now is depth," said forward Scott Mifsud, who is back with the team after a season overseas. "It doesn't seem like we have any weak areas at all. The 'D' are awesome. We've got maybe 10 'D' here and they can all play. Good goaltending. And up front, a lot of wheels and just a lot of guys who can think the game. We've got a nice mix here and that's a great thing."

All of that talent means there will be stiff competition for jobs. It's not going to be easy to make this roster, especially with still more assignments from affiliates in the NHL and AHL likely.

"I just think that guys came down knowing that it's a good place and it's going to be a tougher league this year," former ECHL MVP Brad Schell said. "The word is out that not a whole lot of people went over to Europe this year and it's going to make North American hockey better.

"Guys are coming down and they want to play for a spot. There's no real gimmies here and everyone knows that Gwinnett is one of the top places to play in the league."

Even with that in the back of everyone's mind, the mood was positive and up-beat at practice.

"I think guys are excited to be here and we have a really good group," said Schell, who signed with the Gladiators on Friday. "We've only been around each other for a couple days, but the attitude for everyone is the same. We had a meeting before and we all have to buy into the same things. If you're not, you're not going to be here. That's were it has to start in camp and that's what we're trying to do.

"You can see the practices, they're intense, but we're also having fun."

Mifsud, who finished second only to Schell in ECHL scoring during the 2006-07, echoed those sentiments following the team's two-hour practice Saturday.

"Guys are fighting for jobs, but it's nice you can see that mutual respect and when you're away from the rink, you leave everything on the ice," he said.

With an abundance of defensemen, head coach Jeff Pyle has a couple blueliners playing forward for now. He's also expecting to get two more, Chad Denny and Drew Paris, who were each still in transit from their respective AHL clubs Saturday.

Pyle released goalie Chad Collins when Gwinnett's second AHL affiliate in Syracuse assigned Danny Taylor. Pyle was excited about Taylor joining Johnson in net. A draft pick of the L.A. Kings, Taylor split time last year between AHL Manchester and Reading.

Also sent from above were forward Patrick Galivan (AHL Chicago) and defenseman Jamie Fritsch (Syracuse). Pyle gave Fritsch some high praise, comparing him to Jeff Campbell, Gwinnett's other former ECHL MVP and a standout player in all respects.

"All the young kids look good," Pyle said. "They're fun to watch. We've got a lot of rookies right now. I think we look good. We've got speed, we've got skill. I know the league's gotten better, too, but it's a pretty fun group right now.

"It's just refreshing to go in there. I'm excited right now. It's nice having a team that wants to play to win. We should be a pretty solid club."

Gladiators' training camp continues through Oct. 16 and the season starts Oct. 17 at home against the Wheeling Nailers.