Photo: Dale Zanine. Derek Nesbitt was one of 16 players called up from Gwinnett to the AHL this year. He was among a number of those signed by the Gladiators this summer to quickly move up to the next level and not come back.
From the first practice, Jeff Pyle was stunned at how good the Gwinnett Gladiators were this season.
Two weeks later, the roster was even better after several players were assigned from the AHL.
The Gladiators were the best team in the league at the start of the year. No one looked more impressive through the first month.
“Then just to see it pulled apart, ripped apart,” Pyle said after Gwinnett missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
Aaron Bendickson was the first to be taken. Signed by Pyle out of the University of Wisconsin, Bendickson went to AHL Rochester on Oct. 27. He returned from that stint after seven games, but was later had to return to Madison, Wis., to finish his college degree.
While Bendickson was in Rochester, Chicago took Ryan Garbutt and Peoria picked up Derek Nesbitt. Both players were signed by Pyle during the summer. Neither returned from the AHL.
The Gladiators also lost Tom Zanoski to a team overseas and Matt Francis to a shoulder injury.
“Not only do you have six of your top offensive guys go up to the AHL, but then you lose a kid to go back to college, which has never happened, and then ‘Z’ went to Europe,” Pyle said. “So then you’ve lost eight guys.
“Then with Franny out, that made nine.”
With just a few games left in the season, Will Colbert went up to Chicago and Brennan Turner returned to Binghamton, where he was under contract and spent a brief period in February.
“Now there’s 11 guys that go up,” Pyle said.
Even after the season was over, players were getting looks in the AHL. Defenseman Matt Duffy is getting a shot in Portland and Francis was called up by Worcester.
“That’s 13 guys,” Pyle said. “And during the season, 11 guys got looks in the American League, and not just token.”
All tolled, 16 players were called up 23 times and saw time in 237 games.
Which is why they choose to sign with Gwinnett.
Pyle has a well-earned reputation for helping guys mature and move on.
“For call-ups, I don’t know if Gwinnett had the most, but by far it had the most that ended up sticking,” Nesbitt said. “There may be a few guys that get NHL deals out of it. What more do you want?”
The ECHL bills itself as a developmental league, but not every team sticks to that. The Gladiators do.
Ask the players who missed a total of 277 games for Gwinnett because of a call-up.
Nesbitt came to Gladiators as a rookie and helped them get to the Kelly Cup finals in 2005-06.
Pyle traded Nesbitt to Idaho — where he won a championship — but ended up signing the Ontario native twice more, including last summer.
“I respect him and he respects me,” Nesbitt said from Peoria, where the Rivermen are embroiled in a ridiculously tight battle for a postseason berth. “He’s traded me before. I could sit there and chastise him, but I came back.
“I knew where my roots were in pro hockey. That’s the reason I came back and each time, it benefited me.”
After 26 games with Gwinnett in 2007-08, Nesbitt went up to Rockford and spent the rest of the season there. The next summer, he earned an NHL contract with Phoenix.
He was in the AHL through all of 2008-09 and last year signed with Rockford. Nesbitt split time between the IceHogs and their ECHL affiliate in Toledo.
During the offseason, when he had options to sign elsewhere, Nesbitt returned to the Gladiators. Because of Pyle and his long-standing commitment to helping his players.
“I came back to him for a reason,” Nesbitt said. “It was a rebirth in my career after I’d hit a rough patch.
“You say where did it start? Who really taught me the most in my career? It was Jeff.”
Nesbitt, who has had innumerable coaches since he started playing hockey 25 years ago, had 18 points in 11 games for the Gladiators. It gave Nesbitt the confidence he needed to succeed at the next level, where he has been one of Peoria’s top forwards with 38 points in 52 games.
“I give all the credit to Jeff,” Nesbitt said. “There’s really no bigger reason for me to come back to Gwinnett at beginning of the year than Jeff Pyle was there.
“Miller and Garbutt probably wouldn’t have come back. Sam (Roberts), too. Will Colbert, Jeff was a big reason for him to sign here. I don’t think Matt Francis wouldn’t have come back if not for him.”
Pyle didn’t just help players he signed. There were several more under AHL or NHL contract that Pyle worked hard to develop.
A perfect example was Akim Aliu. Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, Aliu was acquired by Atlanta in an offseason trade. He languished in AHL Chicago for the majority of the year before coming to Gwinnett at the end of January.
“He was written off by everybody,” Pyle said. “Nobody ever thought he was going anywhere. He was blackballed. Nobody had a good word to say about him.
“I will tell you right now, I think Akim is very misunderstood.”
Pyle took the time to get to know Aliu and the young prospect put up 20 points in 16 games with the Gladiators.
He’s now in Peoria, along with Nesbitt.
“You have to get to know these kids,” Pyle said. “You have to find what motivates them. He was a handful. He came in here and I pretty much made him understand what he had to do to get out of here.
“I think there’s a lot of people that are shocked that he did go up and he’s done a great job up at that level. I give the credit to him because he understood that I was trying to help him.”
Nesbitt was with Rockford when Aliu was an 18-year-old rookie there.
“I’m pretty close to him,” Nesbitt said. “To see the total 180 he’s done as a person and a player is incredible. If he turns into NHL player someday, the credit goes to Jeff.
“He cares about his players. I’ve seen and heard of people that don’t. He’s never been a guy to do that. If guys are not dressing, then he’ll ask teams to send them back. But he was never going to call here and try to get me sent back.”
The biggest reason Gwinnett didn’t make the playoffs was because of how Pyle advocates for players.
Some coaches in the ECHL won’t answer their phone when they know an AHL team is calling. Others have lied about a player being injured in order to keep them on the roster.
If Pyle had done that with even a few guys, the Gladiators could have been competing for a championship.
“That team I played with for 11 games was the best team I’ve ever played with at that level,” Nesbitt said. “And I’ve been to the finals with three different teams. That team was pretty unbelievable.”
Gwinnett’s roster at the end of the year included nine rookies — more than half the team.
They still came close to making the playoffs.
“I thought I did a good job of upgrading our guys, but I’ve never made that many trades and had to work so hard to keep our team together,” Pyle said. “I kind of rebuilt it three times.
“I feel fortunate that we even had a chance going into the last couple weeks to make the playoffs. And that was because the guys worked so hard.”
The one complaint Pyle never had, through a grinding 72-game schedule, was the team’s effort level. No matter who was in the lineup, they emptied the tank each night.
“Even though we didn’t have the most talent, in seven of the last 10 games I think we outplayed teams and didn’t get the goaltending we needed at crunch time,” Pyle said. “I’ll take full blame for us not making the playoffs and I’ll take full blame for us losing all those guys to call-ups because in the end, that’s what my job is.”
Short-handed down the stretch, Pyle was forced to run six forwards and four defensemen into the ground. It took a toll.
“I feel bad for the fans,” Pyle said. “I understand why there’s a bunch of them that are unhappy because of the way it finished.
“Bottom line, it was a great group at the end. But if we would have had that team from the beginning at the end, we would have had a chance to win the championship.”
Nesbitt has kept up with the team’s ups and downs this season. It was tough for him when Gwinnett’s season ended.
“I’m just as hurt as anyone on the team,” Nesbitt said. “(Andy Brandt) was devastated not making the playoffs. These guys worked so hard, but they were hurt with the call-ups.
“It’s not a knock on them. It’s a learning year for a lot of those guys.”
It also pains him to read the criticisms of Pyle.
“You don’t see a lot of teams in the ECHL winning a championship that aren’t getting their call-up guys back and don’t have their vets there all year,” said Nesbitt, who with Paul Flache were the lone veterans on the roster at the start of the season.
Pyle said he would do it all the same way if given the chance.
“Do you recruit worse guys that maybe aren’t call-up guys, but you know are going to be here?” Pyle said. “You’re expecting to get some guys back and because of the situation and the pressure in Chicago, we didn’t.
“I’ll take the blame for developing kids. If that’s what people want to blame me for, moving guys up and helping develop players, then I’m guilty.”