Gladiators get bigger, tougher in hopes of making a deeper playoff run

DULUTH -- In the wake of a first-round playoff loss, Gwinnett Gladiators head coach John Wroblewski was already planning for this season.

It was his feeling South Carolina won the series -- which included the second longest game in ECHL history in quadruple overtime and ended two days later in double OT -- because it was bigger and more physical.

"We set out to get guys who were able to handle plays a little bit better down in the offensive end," Wroblewski said. "Our forwards, we felt that maybe we weren't accomplishing some of our puck-possession goals. We thought a lot of that had to do with a lack of size.

"Then in the playoffs last year, we really lacked a great tandem of six defensemen that could really go out there and drive the pace of the game and control the other team down in their end."

To start Gwinnett's 10th season, the roster includes a big blueline corps. Most are at least 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds.

Returning defenseman Cody Brookwell tops the list at 6-4, 225 pounds. But Corey Fienhage, who also played in Gwinnett when he wasn't in the AHL last season, is nearly the same size (6-3, 215). As is Ryan Donald (6-3, 227), who helped Florida win the Kelly Cup last year. Sean Duddy (6-2, 190), Justin Wellar (6-2, 205) and Dallas Jackson (6-2, 198) add more bulk on the back end.

"Those guys are all big, mobile bodies," Wroblewski said. "They're not necessarily the type of defensemen that are offensively inclined in regards to be able to dangle with the opposition. But they are still going to be able to facilitate a lot of plays and keep a lot of plays alive for our forwards to get after. We really accomplished what we set out for in terms of that mold of defenseman."

Only rookie Cody Carlson and Kyle Lawson, another Cup-winning Everblade, skim under 6-foot, but both are close to that 200-pound mark as well.

"This league, 72 games, bus trips added in, 3-in-3s -- big bodies down low in the defensive zone, the more they wear on you, obviously the more tired you get," captain Andy Brandt said.

"Then up front we added some size, but we also added some speed. The team as a whole is bigger, faster, stronger."

The vast majority of the Gladiators forwards are at least 6-feet tall. They also represent a range of types.

"We've got some real nifty players, guys like Tony Lucia, Kale Kerbashian and Casey Pierro-Zabotel, who are a little bit different type of player that we had last year." Wroblewski said. "Then there a guy who is an anchor for our team, Joey Haddad, is kind of a mix of that flashy player that can blend a little bit more brutality to his game.

"Brando is obviously that same fit as well. That type of player who adds a lot of grittiness to his game, but also has a fair amount of skill to go with it."

Tyler Murovich and Rylan Galliardi also fit that bill.

Moving further along the spectrum are players like Chris Clackson, who spent most of last year in the AHL, Maxime Villemaire and John Scrymgeour.

"Those are guys who have an extreme amount of sandpaper to their game," Wroblewski said. "It's an interesting blend this year.

"We've got a little more versatility. Guys have really made a tough job for us to select who is going to be in the lineup. It's a great problem to have."

Both goalies, Mike Lee and Louis Domingue, have been assigned by the Phoenix Coyotes.

"So far we've been really impressed with these two men," Wroblewski said. "They're young kids, but they work extremely hard back there. They seem to have a real passion to play the game and stop pucks. That, No. 1, is a real good base point for our club to start with.

"I think those kids are going to be leaders in their own way, just with the way they carry themselves, the way that they work. We're looking for them to be anchors. It's a lot to ask for 20- and 21-year-old kids, but that's what the job is calling for."

The NHL lockout presents all sorts of issues. For now, jobs are at an extreme premium. But if the work stoppage is resolved, it will mean many players moving up to high levels across the board.

"It will be very interesting to see how it plays out with the lockout and what the caliber of play might be," Wroblewski said. "We could get two weeks, three weeks in here and realize that we're not big enough and we're not strong enough because of the lockout. I don't think that's going to be the case, but we're going to have to reevaluate.

"We have no idea exactly what the talent level of the league is going to be this year. But I can tell you this, from our standpoint, we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year."

The Gladiators started the season on the road Saturday night in South Carolina, but it's their only game of the week. The home opener is Friday against Ontario with Greenville visiting Saturday.

"Right now you've just got to stick to the basics," Donald said. "We'll have one game and then we'll have another week to kind of tweak and go over the details.

"It's definitely a different year for everybody. Organizations have the numbers they need for the NHL and American League level. And all of a sudden , there's a kind of downward pressure because there aren't as many spots. I think that will help in the long run. Every day you have to push yourself to get better and earn your spot."