It’s been nearly three years since Derek Nesbitt put on a Gwinnett Gladiators’ uniform and head coach Jeff Pyle doesn’t expect to keep him long. But both parties were happy to sign a contract bringing the talented forward back Tuesday.
The 28-year-old has averaged more than a point per game in his ECHL career, which spans four seasons. He’s also claimed the league’s championship, raising the Kelly Cup with Idaho in 2006-07 — a year after he helped the Gladiators to the finals.
“I figured he was definitely a guy who would be one of the captains,” Pyle said. “He’s a hard worker and he’s been to the next level. He’s got a good attitude.
“He knows he has an opportunity to put some numbers up and go to the next level. I don’t expect to have him the whole year, but I hope we can have him early and get off to a good start.”
As a rookie out of Ferris State University, Nesbitt collected 69 points in 71 regular-season games with Gwinnett. The Ontario native also had 13 points in 17 playoff games as the Gladiators lost the title to Alaska.
Nesbitt was traded to Idaho the following year, but after winning the championship there, he returned to Gwinnett. He played 26 games in 2007-08 and, with a dynamite 39 points in that period, Nesbitt got his first call-up to the American Hockey League.
He left for what was supposed to be a weekend stint. Three games and four days later, Rockford signed Nesbitt to a one-way contract and he remained with the IceHogs for the rest of the season.
Nesbitt took another step in the summer of 2008 when he signed with the Phoenix Coyotes. He spent the whole season in the AHL, but then was invited to the Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp last fall. Again on contract with Rockford, the Blackhawks’ affiliate, Nesbitt split his season between the IceHogs and Toledo in the ECHL.
He said he very much enjoyed playing for ECHL Hall of Famer Nick Vitucci in Toledo, but opted instead to sign with Gwinnett.
“I was kind of waiting to see, still looking for a possible American League deal,” Nesbitt said. “I’m not quite sold on Europe yet and if I was going to give it another go here in North America, I’m most comfortable playing for Jeff in Gwinnett. It suits my style.
“To me it was, if I was going to be back in ECHL, it was going to be here.”
He made it clear it wasn’t easy to leave Toledo.
“I love Nick Vitucci as a guy and as a coach,” Nesbitt said. “It’s not a way to get away from him. But I have a pretty good relationship with Jeff.”
He also likes living in Gwinnett. He’s been here since May, training with several other Gladiators and a couple Atlanta Thrashers’ at WPI.
“It’s been good,” Nesbitt said. “Some more guys are back in town so it’s starting to get going.”
Now five years into his pro career, Nesbitt gave some thought to a job overseas. But he doesn’t want to leave before he’s certain it’s the right move.
“Right from begin, I said, ‘I know you’re looking to go to American League, but if doesn’t work out, I’d love to have you back,’” Pyle said. “He’s a coaches’ player. He’s a good team guy.”
Nesbitt, since he’s in town, stops by Pyle’s office occasionally to discuss the upcoming season and how the team is shaping up.
“I just want to try to create a better mentality,” Pyle said. “He knows how it works. I want to get back to the mentality we had about three years ago where everybody played hard. We’ve had a lot of selfish situations that haven’t been a lot of fun for anyone.
“To me he’s a guy that can put up big numbers. He’s a good start to adding some offense.”
Nesbitt figures to be one of the few players on the roster with significant pro experience.
“I want to take some kind of leadership role,” he said. “I’ve played in other leagues, in finals.”
He wants to lead on the ice with offensive production but also understands that’s not the only thing that matters.
“There’s more than one side to the game, especially getting to the next level,” Nesbitt said.