DULUTH — Two hours into the practice, players were still speeding through drills and rattling the boards with an aggressive drive for the puck Monday.
The Gwinnett Gladiators’ third practice of training camp went on another 30 minutes before head coach Jeff Pyle called a halt and, after just a few days of long workouts, the early returns are promising.
Gwinnett missed the playoffs last season for the first time in its seven-year history and Pyle was deliberate in his summer recruiting, hoping to avoid the problems that have plagued the Gladiators recently.
“It just feels like it’s a different atmosphere,” he said. “It feels like one of the better atmospheres we’ve had in terms of the mentality of the guys and not having to worry about egos.”
Pyle went after players who were willing to sacrifice personal accolades for the good of the team, who were willing to execute his systems and be responsible at both ends of the ice.
He thinks that’s what he’s got.
“It’s a good group,” Pyle said. “We’ve been talking to them all summer about the mistakes we made last year and the year before, the mentality of the guys. The mistakes we made are all correctable — if we’ve got guys in the room want to correct them.
“In the end, I think all these guys agree with where I’m coming from. And you see it in practice.”
A prime example was Derek Nesbitt, in his third stint with the Gladiators after spending the majority of the last three seasons in the AHL.
Nesbitt zipped through the neutral zone on a drill halfway through Monday’s practice and could certainly have used his considerable skill to create a play. But instead, he made the smart decision and chipped the puck in deep. It’s simple but crucial plays like that that have Pyle smiling.
“Our power play was No. 1, our penalty kill was in the top five, but 5-on-5, we didn’t have the character in the locker room from the leaders last year,” Pyle said. “That’s going to change. We’re going to be a smarter team.
“Like Nessie, just little things like that leadership in the drills. He gets over the red line and Nessie could take chances with it, but he chips it deep. Because he knows that’s what I want and he knows that’s what these guys are going to see. That’s what we did not have last year.”
A number of other players have lived up to advance billing in Pyle’s opinion.
He said forwards Aaron Bendickson, a University of Wisconsin product, and Chris Poli, acquired in a trade with Trenton, both have exceeded his not inconsiderable expectations. Goaltender Billy Sauer, another player out of a top college program at Michigan, also earned praise.
“And as you know, I’m a big Paul Flache fan,” Pyle said of the versatile veteran who once captained the Gladiators. “A lot of the guys here have been talking about him being mobile as a ‘D’ and as a forward.”
Several more players were on their way from AHL affiliate Chicago, including Tim Miller, Tim Filangieri and Will Colbert. Rookie Cody Brookwell was already here after attending the Wolves’ camp and Pyle is expecting still more players to be assigned from above.
“I like the mix of them,” Pyle said. “Then you’ve also got your hardworking guys like Justin Milo and Drew Akins.”
Training camp continues today through Oct. 13 when the team leaves for the season opener in Florida.
“I think everybody came into camp in really good shape — which is always a plus,” Flache said. “I’m surprised that nobody seems to be too tired, but yeah, so far, so good.
“Hopefully we keep it going like this.”