WICHITA, Kan. – In news that didn’t come as a shock to anyone in the Thunder orbit, on Wednesday, the Wichita Thunder announced Malcolm Cameron would not be back for a fourth season behind the bench and they are starting the process of looking for the team’s 14th head coach in 27 years.
While a very loud section of Thunder fans will look back negatively at Cameron’s time in Wichita, it should be noted that he progressed the franchise farther than any coach has since Derek Laxdal. During Cameron’s time in the Air Capital, he helped land the franchise’s first two NHL/AHL affiliations (Ottawa 2016-17, Edmonton 2017-current), was able to get one player (Jack Rodewald) to the National Hockey League level and moved multiple players along to the AHL. While not as glamorous to fans as wins and losses, these achievements are important in the hockey world as they represent stability within the franchise and a willingness to adapt to the player development model in today’s game.
Additionally, Cameron was able to summon higher-end talent to Wichita; such as Dyson Stevenson, Travis Brown, Mark MacMillan, P.C. Labrie, Ralph Cuddemi, and Keoni Texeira. There is little doubt that Cameron’s connections in the hockey world were a huge help in getting this caliber of player to Wichita.
Here are five different tracks the Thunder could take in the search for their next head coach, in no particular order:
Someone familiar to the ownership group
Without a doubt, the ideal candidate here is Bruce Ramsay, who spent six seasons as coach of the Tulsa Oilers from 2009-15, before moving to Grand Rapids to join current Griffins’ head coach Ben Simon‘s staff. Ramsay was part of the Griffins’ Calder Cup win in 2017.
Ramsay guided the Oilers to the playoffs in three of his six seasons on the Oilers bench, and two of four years with Steven Brothers Sports Management as the team’s owners.
If the Thunder manages to keep the same NHL/AHL affiliation, it will be interesting to see how the current group does with Ramsay’s structured defensive system. Further, it will be interesting to see if Ramsay’s recruiting connections have deepened after his three-year stint in the American Hockey League.
Proven ECHL head coaches
The one thing the Steven Brothers have done during their tenure is to empower their general managers to go get the best coach on the market at the time of the search. Coaches such as Jason Christie, Rob Murray, and, yes, even Malcolm Cameron are examples of this.
Should this model be followed and the ownership group wishes to go get someone who is proven at this level, the first (and only, really) candidate is Larry Courville. The 44-year-old recently spent eight-and-a-half seasons on the Reading Royals bench, winning a Kelly Cup championship in 2013. Additionally, with the exception of the year he took over the head coaching position (2009,) Courville’s teams all finished over .500 and made the Kelly Cup Playoffs, with four of those teams winning at least one round.
Courville built a sustainable ECHL program in Reading, has plenty of experience working with young players, affiliations and NHL teams, plus a penchant for bringing in high-end talent, qualities the next Thunder head coach should have.
The trick for general manager Joel Lomurno will be to convince Courville to get back into coaching. Currently, he is the Director of Hockey Operations for the Lancaster (PA) Thunderbirds.
An olive branch to Edmonton
With a farm system as deep as Edmonton currently has, it makes sense for the Wichita Thunder to do everything in their power to keep the Oilers as their NHL/AHL affiliate. Admittedly, if the Oilers had not fired general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd Mclellan this season and currently looking for long-term replacements, this probably would have been a more significant option.
That said, if they were to go this route, one name to watch would be Edmonton Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer, who has significant coaching experience at all levels of the game. Prior to going behind the Oil Kings’ bench, he was an assistant coach with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning from 2015-2018. During the 2017-18 season, Lauer helped guide the Lightning to a 113-point campaign and first place in the Atlantic Division.
Prior to his three seasons with the Lightning, Lauer served as an assistant coach for six seasons with the Anaheim Ducks (2012-15) and Ottawa Senators (2009-11). He also served as assistant coach for three seasons with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch and Milwaukee Admirals, and the WHL’s Kootenay Ice from 2002-07.
Selected in the 2nd round, 34th overall by the New York Islanders in the 1985 NHL Draft, the Humboldt, SK native went on to play 323 career NHL games with the New York Islanders, Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, and Pittsburgh Penguins, registering 111 points (44G, 67A).
Revisit old coaching trees
One name heard buzzing around the concourses of INTRUST Bank Arena during the later parts of the regular season was Doug Shedden, the architect of the only two championship-winning teams in Thunder history. In fact, some of the Thunder’s most ardent supporters hung a Shedden jersey from the 25th anniversary season over the coaches’ tunnel before the game on Saturday night.
While Shedden would be the “home run hire,” there are a couple of reasons why it might not work. First, it’s been since 1999 that he’s coached in the ECHL. With the league skewing younger in every phase of the game, including coaching, one might consider Shedden “out of his league,” when trying to work with and adapt his coaching style to today’s younger player. It is noteworthy that in both his current and previous stops, Shedden has coached teams with NHL players on them and teams that were older.
Second, if the organization were to hire Shedden, they will need to venture outside their comfort zone to give him the contract security he deserves. The Steven Brothers Sports Management group must ask themselves the tough question of whether such a coach is worth more than the one or two-year deals that have been offered to former coaches McClelland and Cameron. If they agree that it is, then no stone should be left unturned to get Shedden to Wichita. If not, then it will be a much tougher sell to get the five-time championship winning coach back to the Air Capital.
So how about Derek Laxdal or Mark French? Laxdal is likely to be a “hard no,” as he’s leading the AHL’s Texas Stars in a defense of their Western Conference title from a season ago. French, likewise, is also a “no,” as he’s currently coaching in Switzerland.
Going the rookie route
This, in my opinion, seems to be the most unlikely of options, but one worth shaking the trees on if the coaching search really goes askew. When the Thunder last did an extensive coaching search, there were a handful of rookie head coaches in the final group, and it’s likely there will be this time, too.
However, given where the franchise is currently, the incentive to bring in a rookie head coach and expect for a winning product seems to be a bit much. Moreover, the move would likely be viewed by the fanbase as a “cheap option.” It takes time for a rookie head coach to develop a program that works, recruiting contacts, etc. So, unless such a move has the blessing of the parent club, I don’t see it happening here in Wichita.
Putting the big stuff, lack of wins and playoff success during Cameron’s time in Wichita, aside, it would appear the table is set for the next head coach to come in and have success very soon.
That said, it is incumbent on Thunder management to relate to the next Thunder head coach — whoever it ends up being — that they will not be walking into the same rebuilding project Cameron walked into three years ago. The Thunder have stabilized and the roster has been upgraded thanks to free agency and a player affiliation, and it’s clear that Wichita is in a must-win-now situation, especially with the Thunder hosting the 2020 ECHL All-Star Classic this coming January.