EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Last season, the Evansville Thunderbolts looked to be the dark-horse team in the Southern Professional Hockey League. The Bolts were 19-7-5 late in January and threatening to become a serious threat at the top of the league standings.
Then, the bottom fell out.
Injuries and call-ups took their toll on a team, though talented, lacked the depth to weather the hits to their roster. The call-up of goaltender Tomas Sholl to the ECHL Adirondack Thunder (then to the Idaho Steelheads) was the straw which broke the Bolts back. Evansville went 0-11-2, going winless throughout the entire month of February before finding their wings again.
The Bolts managed to rebound under new goaltenders Ryan de Melo and Ian Sylves, closing out the season with an 8-2-3 record. In the playoffs, Evansville provided the city with their first-ever postseason win against the Macon Mayhem, but when the series shifted to central Georgia the experience of the 2017 Presidents Cup champions held out, ending the Thunderbolts season.
Over the summer, the franchise experienced wholesale changes at the top of their hockey and office operations. Gone were head coach Jeff Pyle and general manager Pete Xander. Pyle departed Evansville for a return gig with the ECHL Atlanta Gladiators – a team he once took to a Kelly Cup Final. Xander, meanwhile, took a job in the collegiate ranks at Duke University.
After a long search which went into August, the Thunderbolts seem to have found their men to lead the franchise into their next era. Adam Stio takes over as the new general manager, while former NHL-er Ian Moran – who spent the bulk of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins – becomes the second bench boss in Bolts history.
Now, under new management and new leadership, the Evansville Thunderbolts look to take flight again.
Nuts and (Thunder) Bolts
2017-18 Season Record: 27-20-9, 63 points
Season Finish: Sixth
Postseason Finish: Defeated in the first round by Macon in three games.
Goals Scored per Game: 3.32, seventh
Goals Allowed per Game: 3.41, seventh
Power Play: 22.2% (50/225), first
Penalty Kill: 81.5% (37/200), sixth
Will anyone come and watch this team? Last season, the Thunderbolts were last in the SPHL in attendance, averaging only 2,309 fans per game. Compared to their inaugural season, the organization only managed to increase their average attendance by 29 – an increase of only 1.2%. Coach Moran may be able to put a quality product on the ice, but it’s going to be Stio’s uphill battle to win over the old ECHL IceMen fan base and corporate support.
There will be blood: One aspect of the game which draws fans is fighting and the Bolts have a pair who are more than willing to drop gloves. Nick Wright, a late-season addition in Evansville, is back for another campaign. In 12 games, Wright racked up 58 penalty minutes, most of the five-minute variety. Another heavyweight on the Thunderbolts roster is 6’6″ Tyler Howe, who played in 41 games in Knoxville last season and amassed 80 minutes in the penalty box.
A “Killer” instinct? Moran becomes the first coach since Louisiana’s Kevin Kaminski to head up an SPHL team after spending a significant part of his playing career in the NHL. What kind of influence Moran’s time in The Show should have an immediate effect on his younger charges? If history is any guide, the best years of the SPHL IceGators were under Kaminiski’s reign.
“We’re going to try and keep it as simple as we can. We’re going to try and eliminate excess movement, let them know that less is more, and not try to chase the puck all over… X’s and O’s – there’s only so much you can teach them no matter where you’re playing, but you’re going to have to get (players) in an area where they feel comfortable and they’re confident in what they’re doing. It’s my job to have them do that.” — Moran on how NHL systems and structures translate to the SPHL.
Rory Rawlyk – The veteran defenseman has spent the bulk of his 14 previous years in pro hockey in the ECHL and overseas. Moran specifically recruited Rawlyk to be a player/assistant in Evansville, and the 6’5″ has not disappointed the boss. “He’s awesome, ” says Moran,” he’s a big guy who moves really well. He’s very vocal, talks to the young guys, and he’s exceeded everything I’ve hoped for.”
Mike Fazio – The second-year winger out of Wisconsin-River Falls has had a great camp and looks to make a big impact on the forward lines this year. Fazio has been intense in camp, to the point of dropping the gloves during last Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage.
Carter Shinkaruk – Formerly with the Huntsville Havoc before being picked up as a free agent by Evansville near the end of the season, Shinkaruk had four goals and three assists over ten games. Shinkaruk is another player drawing specific praise from Moran during camp.
Gone but Not Forgotten
Dave Williams – Williams, one of the original Thunderbolts, played in 110 games over the past two seasons and led the team in scoring both years.
John Scorcia – Like Williams, another player who has spent the last two seasons in Evansville, was a blue-collar fan-favorite who racked up 51 points last season.
Cory Melkert – Last season’s captain, Melkert was the Bolts’ leading defensive scorer with 22 points. Melkert will visit the Ford Center on February 28th with his new team – the Pensacola Ice Flyers.
Sin Bin Swami Sez
The Thunderbolts will play almost half of their schedule – 23 games – against their archrivals in Peoria (11) and new northern rivals in the Quad Cities (12). Should the Bolts find some new-found success against the Rivermen while taking advantage of the expansion Storm, Evansville can be a team to be reckoned with this season. However, this is a team which Moran even admits will have to gel defensively, so temper your expectations early on. Expect the Bolts to remain in the middle of the pack in the SPHL with about 29-31 wins and perhaps an upset win in the first round of the playoffs. Don’t plan the parade, though. This franchise rebuild is still a year off.
What do you think? Let us know how you think the Thunderbolts will do!