WICHITA, KS – With the 2017-18 season just days away, all of the player signing announcements done, an exhibition game played, it is time to look at some of the questions surrounding this year’s edition of the Wichita Thunder.
1. What impact will Justin Crandall leaving have on the team, if any?
When the Justin Crandall-for-Nolan Zajac swap happened in early August, it was the biggest move the Thunder had made since the move to the ECHL nearly four years ago. All-star forward and a right-handed shot acquired for an all-star defenseman who was likely not going to sign in the Air Capital.
But that move, like so many the Thunder have made in the several years, fell flat, and Crandall bounced for Denmark in the middle stages of September. Gone is the likely focal point of the offense for Wichita this coming season, with very little time to go to a “plan B,” or “plan C” in the free agent market.
Even though he never wore a Thunder jersey, Crandall’s absence from the team is likely to be felt at least in the opening stages of this year. Heading into the 2017-18 campaign, the Thunder have just one player on the roster who scored more than 40 points at the pro level last season, veteran Travis Ewanyk. It is clear that the Thunder will have to rely on greasy goals and net-front presence, rather than pure scoring prowess, to beat opponents, at least early in the season.
Crandall’s leaving also increases pressure on those further down the depth chart; Matt DeBlouw, Louick Marcotte, Istvan Sofron, and those sent down from Edmonton, to produce early and often. The Thunder offense cannot afford to have a slow start to the campaign.
2. New season, new affiliation. Will it make a difference?
Last season’s affiliation with the Ottawa Senators can best be described with a photo:
With the player movement up to Binghamton and lack thereof coming back to Wichita, fans and Thunder staff quickly soured of the arrangement.
The Oilers are a franchise on-the-rise with tons of young talent who are not in a rush to move players up unless they are ready. Barring a rash of injuries in Bakersfield and with the parent club, it is entirely likely that four to six Oilers products will spend a majority of the season in Wichita. Case in point, Norfolk in 2016-17, where at least four players logged heavy time in the Tidewater last season.
This stability, along with the core of “call-up proof” players Malcolm Cameron identified and signed in the offseason, hopefully, will lead to an improved Wichita Thunder squad.
3. How big of an upgrade in net will Joel Rumpel be?
There is no doubt that Joel Rumpel was very under-used last season in Cincinnati. But in the games he played, Rumpel was solid, sporting a record of 4-4-0, with a 2.96 goals against average, a .919 save percentage and two shutouts in 446 minutes of work in Chili City.
According to a scouting analysis done by hockeysfuture.com, Rumpel is a big goalie who uses his size to advantage and does not give up on a play. A bit rigid in his movements at times, he relies on sound positioning and the ability to play his angles. Rumpel has shown the ability to handle a heavy workload and does not let goals linger, focusing on the next scoring chance.
When compared to Scott Greenham, Rumpel is a definite upgrade. Looking at the bodies of work, Greenham has a career 43-61-11 record, a 3.36 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. On the other side, Rumpel has a career ECHL record of 28-15-5, 2.48 goals against average; a .912 save percentage and two Kelly Cup Championships (Allen Americans).
Rumpel and likely-to-be-assigned goalie Shane Starrett, are expected to split time during the opening weekend set against the Indy Fuel.
4. With a tougher defense, will it equate to fewer goals against?
One of the weaknesses last year’s Thunder squad was that they were pushed around quite a bit, especially on defense. And I’m not talking about from a fighting aspect. The rearguard for the Thunder took untimely penalties, lost battles in the corners and at the front of the net, and at times, played incredibly soft. The “defense, sponsored by Charmin,” led to the Thunder allowing 278 goals — an average of 3.86 goals per game — and five or more goals in a game 26 times last season.
Cameron made the defense his top priority this offseason, signing rugged players like Guillaume Lepine, Etienne Boutet, and Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin to the blueline with the hopes the defense will not be as soft as it was last year. If the Thunder defense can play sound positionally, win battles in front of the net and in the corners, and limit unnecessary penalties, it should help limit the goals against.
5. Will the Thunder make their first Kelly Cup Playoffs? If not, who’s to blame and what does an appropriate remedy look like?
Now for the opinion part of this piece. I took the summer and thought about this, especially since I was one of those who believed the Thunder could be a 40-plus win team last season.
It’s obvious the pillaging of the Thunder roster by Belleville coach Kurt Kleinendorst last year set Wichita back, but I also believe the depth players on the Thunder roster didn’t do their part to help weather the storm. With Cameron shopping for an “untouchable” veteran core of guys in the offseason, combined with strong goaltending and some offensive punch, it is fair to say that Wichita should do better this season than last. Just how much better, remains to be seen.
Given the strength of the western conference; Cincinnati should be markedly improved, Colorado is still going to be tough despite losing its championship core, Allen is Allen, and Toledo still is one of the ECHL’s elite teams, I don’t see Wichita getting more than 30-35 wins. If somehow, Wichita makes it into the Kelly Cup Playoffs, they are likely to be a bottom three seed and could face an early exit.
Malcolm Cameron’s contract runs out at the end of the season, and I believe anything more than 21 wins (which the team got last season) should earn him a contract extension. Cameron has worked hard to put together a winning culture and do things with the organization the previous coach did not and would not do. It takes time and patience to build the culture and Cameron has shown that he was won at every stop he has been at in the past. Give the man a chance.
That said, having your best offensive player leave for Europe without ever putting on your team’s jersey is the symptom of a larger problem for Wichita. No matter who the coach is, there will always be a lack of buy-in from ownership & upper management. It seems that sales and having a minor league franchise be profitable — which few rarely are — will always come before investing in a winning product. Wins are the best the tool to help fill seats, increase awareness about the team, and create a desire for fans to pay money to watch, as opposed to taking free vouchers to do so. Until that lack of buy-in goes “all-in,” Wichita will struggle to be a viable ECHL franchise on & off the ice.
Thunder fans, coaches, and players all deserve an ownership and management group who will spare no expense to build a winner. This city is craving for it, and there is no reason why INTRUST Bank Arena cannot be one of the most intimidating places to play once again.
Another season of missing the playoffs (or at least appreciable improvement toward becoming a contender,) spaced out wins, instability in the coach’s office and a lack of accountability in the ownership & upper management positions will force Thunder faithful to, enmasse, invest their time in other areas.