WICHITA, KS – The silver anniversary of Wichita Thunder hockey hasn’t gone as planned for the club or its beleaguered fans. After a 2015-16 season that saw the Thunder win just 18 games, there was an air of guarded optimism surrounding the Thunder headed into Malcolm Cameron‘s first season in Wichita. After all, with a coach who has turned two programs around in a very short period of time, one was led to believe he could pull off such a feat for the third time in the Air Capital.
Early on it would appear his plan was working, with some big names producing in the lineup and the team out to a 7-3-0 start in their first ten games. But by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the guarded optimism turned into “Oh no, not this again.”
The roster had been largely depleted by callups; Alex Krushelnyski, Chris Rumble, Macoy Erkamps, Gabriel Gagne, Jack Rodewald and Scott Greenham were all gone to Binghamton, leaving the first year Thunder coach to retool a very young roster on the fly, while still trying to win games. The prized acquisition of last offseason, Vincent Arseneau, missed extended time early in the season with an upper-body injury. After being in the lineup for six weeks, he was re-injured in Colorado on January 28 and is done for the rest of the season. On top of all that is this cherry…the Thunder have lost 19 one-goal games so far this season. Consider it the ice cream sundae of suck, if you will.
“It’s unfortunate because we had such a great start to the season,” Cameron said. “Nobody could see this coming. I mean how many times do you lose nine of your 18 guys to call ups or injuries? You just can’t replace those players.”
Players like defensemen Jamie Doornbosch, and Brandon Carlson, along with forward Zach O’Brien were signed to fill the void. Doornbosch has been called up to Binghamton twice, while O’Brien has had success since joining the Thunder, collecting 19 points (6G, 13A) in 21 games before being sidelined with an injury.
Through all the roster tumult, Cameron sees it as a recruiting positive for the team headed into the summer.
“This team had one game in callups in its first two years in the ECHL. We’re going to end up with well over 200 (man games lost to callups) by the end of the season, so we are going to lead the league in callups,” Cameron said. “this league is all about recruiting players to spots where they have an opportunity to move up and now we have something to really brag about.”
While many Thunder fans have not been happy with the affiliation with Ottawa, Cameron maintains the lines of communication have been open and the teams are talking daily about what lies ahead. The Thunder coach cited Senators forward Clarke MacArthur‘s concussion and the release of Matt Puempel (later picked up by the New York Rangers) as two ways players from lower leagues were moved up a link in the affiliation chain.
“In my conversations with them (Ottawa Senators), I know they feel very bad that they have picked us apart here,” Cameron said. “They are not without wanting to help us. They do care about Wichita and they do want to see us get better and want to make this work.”
Last September, the Ottawa Senators purchased the AHL club currently residing in Binghamton and announced they would be moving to Belleville, Ontario next season. The move is a duplicate of what is being done on the west coast, where NHL teams purchase AHL clubs and move them closer to the parent club. It is done so players can be further evaluated and easily available for callups. In addition to adding depth to the AHL club, it may also mean a higher likelihood that Wichita keeps the quality players they have on the roster for a longer period of time.
In addition, Cameron said the team is looking into the possibility of working informally with a second NHL club moving forward.
“The move would give us a bigger asset pool and talent pool. Now that we have had these callups that we can grab the attention of player agents, it’s so much easier to get in the door when you have backup to what you’re trying to sell. Now that we have that, we want to make it the best program we can.”
Cameron stressed that a second partner would have to make player development at the minor pro level a top priority and a good fit for both sides, much like what he feels he has with Ottawa right now.
Heading into the offseason, it would appear the team has a decent, young nucleus to start building around for next year. After enduring a season where the team gets pillaged by callups, the Thunder head coach says he will recruit differently during this offseason.
“I will try to get three or four guys I know won’t get called up. They will be the core guys that I will build around.”
Wichita was surprisingly busy at the trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Randy Cure and future considerations from Allen in exchange for Krushelnyski being assigned there to help the Americans with their playoff run. In addition, defenseman Landon Oslanski was sent to Toledo for future considerations. Cameron stressed the considerations coming to Wichita from Allen & Toledo would be players. The team is also owed considerations from Colorado in the Mitch Holmberg deal and Wheeling from the Kenton Miller trade but it is unclear whether the returns on the deals will be players or cash.
A portion of the young nucleus moving into next year is likely to include four players who have filled in admirably for the club this season; forwards Matt DeBlouw, Blake Tatchell, Gerrad Grant and netminder Drew Owsley. Cameron praised the four rookies for their growth and ability to stand out in the lineup while logging big minutes.
“You look at DeBlouw’s last 20 games, his point totals have gone through the roof — same with Tatchell’s. Grant really has found a niche as a good third line guy and a penalty killer — he is really good at it. With Owsley, we were looking at a 50/22 split (with Greenham) this season. As it’s turned out, Drew’s going to play way more than Scott did. He will end up with way over 35 games. He deserves better and it’s unfortunate he doesn’t get a lot of goal support from us because all of our goal scoring is out of the lineup. in saying that, he battles and gives us a chance to win every night.”
With their next win, Wichita will surpass their win total from last season (18). While the season may be lost, it is important to look at the bigger picture through the trees. The team has a foundation to build on and a full offseason to recruit top-level talent to Wichita.