Gwinnett Gladiators forward Joey Haddad celebrates his short-handed goal against South Carolina in the clinching game of their playoff series last season at the North Charleston Coliseum. The Gladiators swept the series to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
New head coach, new assistant and mostly new roster.
The Gwinnett Gladiators have rarely gone through so many changes in an offseason.
It’s not an entirely new dynamic though.
The head coach, Rick Emmett, was the assistant for the last two seasons and played here at the end of his pro career.
The new assistant coach is Andy Brandt, who retired this summer as the longest-tenured Gladiator in franchise history.
There are five players who contributed significantly to last year’s team back on the roster and the potential for more to be added.
Joey Haddad is the most senior member of that group, entering his fifth pro season and third with Gwinnett. NHL affiliate Phoenix has assigned defenseman Justin Weller, forward Alex Belzile and goalie Louis Domingue to the Gladiators. Former Coyotes property Evan Bloodoff signed with Gwinnett and Dirk Southern has returned to the fold after several years playing overseas.
“You look at our senior guys, they’re all 23 years old,” Emmett said. “Other than Dirk, everybody has been playing for three, maybe four years, but they’re still only 23 years old. They still haven’t truly hit their prime years for hockey.
“But we’ve got a good core of guys.”
Many cogs from last year’s division championship team are gone. Some retired (Ryan Donald and Justin Bowers). Some opted to play across the pond (Cody Brookwell and Casey Pierro-Zabotel).
Marietta native Doug Jones joined the working world, but may be available for emergency action this year. Defenseman Dallas Jackson is in AHL Bridgeport. Tyler Murovich was traded to Orlando. Corey Fienhage also signed with the Solar Bears.
“There are a lot of new faces in the locker room, but there are faces we’ve seen before,” Brandt said. “Obviously those faces are important. Joey coming back. He’s a leader. (Weller and Bloodoff), those guys are impact players. Even Dirkie coming back, he’s a little bit older. He’s been around the ECHL, he’s been around the American League and then got a little bit of time over in Europe. So he’s experienced it all and that brings a lot to the table.
“But it is nice to see new faces. That breeds competition. Guys aren’t sure of who is who and what’s what so they’re going to come out and compete.”
The Gladiators are undeniably young — the average age is just under 23 — but many of the rookies have been captains at other levels.
Brenden Walker scored a career-high 33 goals in just 72 games while captaining Saskatoon last season.
Martin Lefebvre provided a spark from the point over the past five seasons with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, including 40 points in 56 games as captain in 2012-13.
Jeremie Malouin has been a captain since he was 17 while playing in the QMJHL.
From the collegiate ranks, the Gladiators added captains C.J. Lee (RPI) and Devon Krogh (Ohio State).
“There is certainly stuff they have to learn about this level of hockey, but there is a natural ability for them to be leaders,” Emmett said. “Although we may be young, we have guys that I think understand what the culture is about.”
That culture, Haddad said, includes checking ego at the door.
“You’re open to meeting new guys, open to a new system of play and from Day 1, all your effort is to buy into the team outlook,” the power forward said. “The quicker we get to working for the team instead of for our individual selves, that’s when you get the success.”
Haddad thinks he’s seeing the right things as the team works its way through the grind of training camp. They are halfway through with a home exhibtion game today at 5:30 p.m. at the IceForum in Duluth.
“The big thing I look for is just to have a good group of guys,” he said. “What I mean by that is a bunch of guys who look forward to spending time with their teammates, include everybody in dressing room talks and dinner dates. Everything I see this season points right to that. We’ve got 22 unbelievable guys — as far as I can see.
“The basic mentality is let’s work hard as a group and get better so when the season opens on the 18th, we hit the door running.”
Running and gunning most likely.
If there’s a prevailing theme coming out of camp, it’s speed.
“I’m always going to coach to what my personnel is and we’re certainly fast,” Emmett said. “We’re going to be on the puck. We’re going to be pestering all night long. We’re going to be a team that looks to capitalize off transition and get on the go.”
Brandt saw it on the first full day of practice.
“That’s the first thing I said to Emmer,” Brandt said. “You can’t teach speed, so we’re looking for guys to hunt pucks. With our team speed, we should wear teams down in the third period.”