Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl, left, has played most of the season with the Baby Penguins, but even he has spent some time with the Nailers in Wheeling, W.Va.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WHEELING, W.Va. -- There is a Pittsburgh roadblock that has nothing to do with tunnels or rush hour -- or even vehicles. It extends east to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and southwest to this panhandle town.
Essentially, all of the Penguins prospects under pro contracts are confined to the American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre or the ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, with no shot at cracking the Penguins' roster as long as the NHL lockout persists.
"It's just the nature of the game right now," said 25-year-old defenseman Carl Sneep, a second-round draft pick in 2006 who went from Boston College to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after 2009-10 and had remained there -- other than one game with the Penguins last season when he filled in for injured players -- until earlier this season, when things got too crowded in Wilkes-Barre and he was assigned to Wheeling.
Other prospects have spent time with the Nailers in Wheeling this season, including forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Keven Veilleux and Dominik Uher, who have gone back to Wilkes-Barre.
In addition, defenseman Reid McNeill, rugged forward Adam Payerl and goaltender Patrick Killeen are in Wheeling but are on injured reserve. All have spent time in the AHL.
"The trickle-down effect is here," said Nailers coach Clark Donatelli. "It actually helps the whole league out. It helps our team out, and it strengthens the whole league.
"It's the second-best league in North America. You have guys that normally wouldn't be here, but because of the AHL with the trickle-down effect from the NHL, they're here."
At least a couple of players in Wilkes-Barre would most likely be playing with the Penguins if not for the lockout. Those candidates include forward Eric Tangradi and defensemen Simon Despres and Brian Strait.
But for now, they are taking up spots that could go to players in Wheeling if not for the lockout.
Wheeling, a 60-mile drive from Pittsburgh, is an alternative for fans needing a hockey fix. Individual game tickets at WesBanco Arena top out at $20.
The Nailers (12-10-2-3, 29 points) have won six games in a row. Their next home game is at 5 p.m. New Year's Eve against Elmira.
An unsettled future for the Nailers was resolved in the offseason. There was some question about whether the franchise might move, but a local group called Regional Economic Development and the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association stepped in to buy the team and keep it in Wheeling.
Wheeling also is an easy round trip for Penguins staffers who go there to scout or even work with Nailers players.
"With the American League loaded up with players, there's more American League players, more draft picks down at this level," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who at times has joined others from his staff at a Wheeling practice.
"You see McNeill and Sneep at this level and some other players down here that normally wouldn't be down here.
"The other part is, typically, the players that are playing especially here in Wheeling, you read about them, read reports on them, hear about them from the scouts, but you don't really ever get to see them play. To come down and watch a game, to come down and watch practice, it's an opportunity that's never afforded in the past."
It's not ideal for players who might otherwise be in Wilkes-Barre to be playing a step below in the ECHL. Things are particularly crowded in the organization on defense.
"The situation is what it is," said Sneep, who has two goals, 10 points and leads the Nailers with a plus-minus rating of plus-8.
"I'm definitely in a better spot to be here playing a lot of minutes. It's not what I want by any means, but I'd rather be here playing than in Wilkes-Barre playing one game every couple of weeks just hoping to get in the lineup."
McNeill, 20, a sixth-round pick in 2010, had three assists in 12 games before he got a concussion.
He is a first-year pro stuck smack in the middle of the organization's logjam on defense.
"With the lockout it's a little backed up," McNeill said. "There are 12 defensemen in the system -- Wilkes-Barre and here. But I'm learning a lot down here. The coaches have been great."
He's not just talking about the Wheeling coaches.
Bylsma and defensive assistant Todd Reirden -- who each spent some of their early playing careers in the ECHL -- and Penguins development coach Bill Guerin have spent time watching and working with Nailers players.
"We're pretty close to Pittsburgh, so every week Todd or Dan or Billy Guerin is out here," McNeill said. "It's been a great experience. It's a little slower pace down here, so you can take the time to learn, maybe perfect some things that maybe up in the AHL it's a little quicker pace and you wouldn't get as much time to work on some smaller things.
"They're staying positive with me, and I'm staying positive as well. I just hope to be ready whenever I get the chance."
McNeill also appreciates the fact that the Penguins use the same systems and a lot of common terminology at all levels of the organization.
"From the top down, it's all the same," he said. "If I got called up tomorrow, I'd be ready to play. There wouldn't be any transition.
"That's what's so great here. It makes it easy to play. Guys love the system."