WICHITA, Kan. – As we wrap-up a hot and humid summer here in southern Kansas, one cannot help but long for the days of crisp, refreshing fall weather that seem so far away but will be here before we know it.
With those days, come the snaps of pucks on sticks, the sound of skates chewing up the ice, the thud of a puck hitting a netminder’s pads, and the other sounds we associate with hockey.
For the Wichita Thunder, the upcoming season represents one of the most important seasons in the franchise’s 28-plus year history, both on and off the ice. The Thunder organization be hosting the league’s biggest in-season event; the ECHL All-Star Classic and associated festivities, while working to put the divisive Malcolm Cameron era in the past and make a return to the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the first time in two seasons.
Head coach Bruce Ramsay has been busy constructing his version of the roster for the upcoming season, and some of it is starting to get penciled in. There are still players to be announced and moves to be completed as the summer progresses, but this is where the Thunder roster stands as of today.
An Update on Players Who Were Qualified
On July 1, the team submitted qualifying offers to eight players: Ralph Cuddemi, Stefan Fournier, Hayden Hodgson, Mark MacMillan, Quentin Shore, Dyson Stevenson, Nolan De Jong, and Tyler Elbrecht.
- Fournier was signed to a contract and will be Ramsay’s player/assistant this year.
- MacMillan has signed overseas.
- Stevenson became a free agent on July 16 and signed with AHL Utica shortly after, but it’s likely he sees considerable time with the Kalamazoo Wings this season
- Hodgson’s rights were traded to the Reading Royals for future considerations, and the former Thunder forward has signed a contract with the Royals for the coming season.
- The quartet of Shore, Cuddemi, De Jong and Elbrecht are unlikely to return to the team, either because of retirement or looking for better deals with teams. Should they decide to continue playing, they would be high-value adds for teams and should net a good return for Wichita if Ramsay chooses to move them.
The Roster So Far…
If you have not kept up with the roster announcements this summer, there are three unmistakable trends in how Ramsay is going about building the roster.
One, very few returning players. Of the 18 signings announced, just two are returning from last year’s team (Bauer and Fournier.) Usually, at this level, incoming coaches like to build off the core left behind, but Cameron did not afford Ramsay that opportunity.
“I think it’s (the roster) going to be more of a rehaul,” Ramsay said of the roster. “A lot of players were granted free agency through the coach last season, so they have their option to do whatever they want. Some players wanted a fresh start somewhere else, so I’m obliging them.”
Ramsay continued: “I still have the rights to a few guys and I’m either going to try and get them back or I’m going to try and move them for some quality players. There were some quality players, there. Three or four guys retired, (Steven) Iacobellis and (Jakob) Stukel signed contracts with Bakersfield and once you add in the free agents, there really wasn’t a lot there.”
Second, as currently constructed, this team is big. According to Elite Prospects, the Thunder has the 11th biggest team in the ECHL with an average height of 6-foot-1 and an average weight of 195 lbs. There’s no doubt that there’s added size and muscle coming, but Thunder fans should not worry about a lack of toughness and tenacity with the team this season:
“We’re going to have a relentless team, one that’s tenacious on the forecheck,” Ramsay said. “We’re going to have a big, strong defensive corps that will be capable of moving the puck. We are going to be a team that’s going to play a full sixty minutes and never stop.”
The final thread is the caliber of player recruited and signed so far by Ramsay. Fourteen of the 18 players announced so far have had stints in the NCAA, including two from Ivy League schools.
“In my experience, I found that players you get (from college,) they seem to be a little more advanced…And there’s nothing wrong with having a few smart guys in your locker room,” Ramsay said.
Eastbound and Down…
Currently, the Bakersfield Condors have 20 forwards/10 defensemen/3 goaltenders on their preseason roster. With Edmonton needing to fill some holes in their lineup, it stands to reason that several pieces of the Condors’ success from a season ago will get a long look in Oilers camp. But, how will all of this affect the Thunder?
Ramsay told me he is expecting a minimum of six players; three forwards, two defensemen, and a netminder to come to Wichita from Bakersfield, which is usually what is sent down.
One thing to keep in mind this year is that the ECHL relaxed the rule regarding AHL assignments and the roster. For players who are not veterans and are on AHL deals, there is no longer a minimum number of AHL games they need to play to be eligible for the Kelly Cup Playoffs. The old rules required five games in the AHL. This rule change should mean more depth players signed to AHL deals that may not play in any AHL games but will still be eligible for ECHL playoffs. The trendsetter last season was Toronto who had 15 contracted players assigned to ECHL Kelly Cup champion, Newfoundland Growlers. It will be interesting to see how this rule impacts Wichita as the year goes on.
Projecting who may get sent to Wichita is tough, but here are my best guesses as to who may be part of the initial wave.
In net, look for Dylan Wells to start the season in Wichita. After a slow start to the 2018-19 season, Wells rattled off eight straight wins, including a six-game run where he allowed less than two goals. Stuart Skinner is a longshot to come here initially, but I can see Edmonton shuttling those two all year long.
On the blueline, keep an eye on Vincent Desharnais, who is the son of former NHL player David Desharnais. The 6-foot-6 defenseman is coming off a four-year career at Providence College, where he played in 131 games, collected 29 points and had a +23 rating. He was named the best defensive defenseman in the Hockey East conference in 2019-19 and signed to a two-year contract with the Condors in mid-July.
The other player to watch is 2017 third-round pick Dmitri Samorukov, who has come into his own as a two-way defender with excellent skating ability. Last season, he shook off a slow start and finished the season with 45 points (10G, 35A) in 59 regular-season games with Guelph and added 28 points (10G, 18A) in 24 Ontario Hockey League playoff games, en route to the Storm winning an OHL title. The 20-year-old Russian also won a bronze medal at the Under-20 tournament earlier this year.
Of the 20 rostered forwards, three will come to Wichita. Nolan Vesey is the most likely to make a return to the Air Capital, after playing in 49 regular-season games between Wichita and Bakersfield last season. The 24-year-old was used primarily in the third line/tenth forward situation for Wichita last year and just never seemed to fit, no matter his spot in the lineup. He’ll need to put together a better season than the 10 points and three goals on 34 shots (.088 shooting percentage) he had for the Thunder.
Ostap Safin, the 115th draft pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, could see time here in Wichita. Various scouting reports say the 6-foot-5 forward has silky hands and a quick shot but needs to fill out his big frame. Depending on who you read, Safin’s defensive game could use some work. Like Vesey, he could be a season-long project for Ramsay.
Finally, there’ll likely be a Starrett in Wichita, but it won’t be Shane. Instead, it’ll be his brother, Beau, who is making the jump to the pro level after a four-year career at Cornell, where he put up 40 points and was a +8. Chicago Blackhawks Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman spoke highly of Starrett:
“We like the size… He’s got the frame, almost 6-foot-5. Give him a couple of years, and he’s got a lot of potential. We like the all-around game that he has, and he’s got skills offensively. When you have that size and can move around the ice, you have a really good chance in today’s game.”
Redlinereport.com gave their observations of Starrett’s game:
“Has very quick hands for a large man. Doesn’t waste time teeing it up – receives and releases the puck in one motion. Has NHL tools at 6-4/195 pounds with above-average skating ability and long, loping stride. Strong on the puck and has shown an opportunistic scoring touch. Comes in hard on the forecheck and finishes checks, forcing defenders to look over their shoulders. When he decides to get physical, he can easily separate defenders from the puck. Has good vision, too – we’ve seen him make some nice looks and cross-ice feeds. Although raw, he has the size, soft hands and offensive element you can’t teach.”
Of course, everyone will be looking westward to see whether Iacobellis and Stukel come back, and that’s entirely possible given the numbers game going on above. But, I would expect both to get long looks in AHL camp before such a decision is made.
Holes Left to Fill…
One of the most significant holes left for Ramsay to fill is with the top-end scoring, especially if Cuddemi does not come back to Wichita. The career-high in points for Crane in the ECHL is 38 with Allen in 2015-16, while Sims’ career-high in points is 46 with Evansville in 2015-16. By comparison, Cuddemi put up 108 points (53G, 55A) in 128 games in a Thunder uniform over the last two seasons, and it could have been more if not for a two-month-long goal-scoring drought. If Cuddemi does not come back for a third season in the Air Capital and Iacobellis/Stukel stays in Bakersfield long-term, there’s a decent chance that the offensive output will not be enough to win games consistently.
The other hole left to fill is on the blueline, in the role of a puck-moving, steady, veteran defenseman. Again, as constructed, there is no one to fill that role. I suspect that this spot gets filled before the top-line scoring is.
There is no secret that Malcolm Cameron left the cupboard in shambles as he walked out the door, which will have ramifications going into the upcoming season. In all likelihood, this year will be one of a rebuild, similar to Cameron’s first year here in Wichita, except with a much steadier affiliation. But, if Ramsay can somehow convince Cuddemi to come back, and if Iacobellis and Stukel are here long-term, then this team is strong enough in net and on the blueline to contend for a playoff spot.
Time will tell, but right now, the Thunder looks to have a very young and defensive-oriented team this coming season.
Follow Matthew Harding and Matthew Will on Twitter (@SinBinThunder) for all things Wichita Thunder, and stayed tuned to The Sin Bin for all late-breaking minor league hockey news! Don’t forget to visit our ECHL Transactions page for up-to-date offseason signings, as well.