The long offseason has begun for Wichita Thunder players and their fans. It is an offseason full of questions; such as what is the source of two sub-par seasons, will Head Coach Kevin McClelland return behind to Thunder bench and what will it take to get the team back to competing for championships.
To be frank, the franchise hasn’t been the same since their defeat in overtime of game 7 in the President’s Cup Final against the Allen Americans on May 12, 2013. Since then, the Thunder have failed to qualify for the playoffs and the faithful-to-a-fault fanbase is growing restless and increasingly vocal. All the while, the two other Steven Brother owned franchises; the Allen Americans and Tulsa Oilers, have won a championship (Allen) and made the playoffs.
Head Coach Kevin McClelland has recruited some talented players to Wichita since the run to Game 7, including the likes of Jon Booras, Todd Hosmer, Kenton Miller, Mike Wilson, Michael Trebish, and Tim Boron.
On the ice, one of the components which seems to have been missing is a lack of scoring depth throughout the line-up. Wichita only had three players with 50 points or more (Gauthier, Lowe, Wilson) and only one player (Gauthier) in the top 20 in ECHL scoring this season. Further, Wichita’s veteran players (Mike Wilson, RG Flath, Erick Lizon, Garrett Klotz) were not good, accounting for a paltry 17.6 percent of the total offense.
A second component that seems to be missing is the team defense. Here is a look at the team plus/minus and playoff results in McClelland’s five seasons in Wichita:
- 2010-11: +79 — Lost in 1st round to Missouri
- 2011-12: +210 — Lost in 5 games of President’s Cup Final to Fort Wayne
- 2012-13: +162 — Lost in 7 games of President’s Cup Final to Allen
- 2013-14: -143 — Did not qualify for playoffs
- 2014-15: -119 — Did not qualify for playoffs
This stat is telling, in that it shows the Thunder had high-powered offenses and were equally strong defensively by forcing the opposition into mistakes and capitalizing on them, especially in McClelland’s first three years.
The goaltending is not without blame here either, allowing an average of 3.18 goals per game this season. In 2013-14, Thunder netminders allowed an equally-plump 3.38 goals per game.
A popular reason for the second lackluster season is the late change in leagues. While such an excuse may have held weight early in the season, it does not anymore. All seven former CHL teams were faced with the same time constraints and having to reconstruct their teams on the fly. When things weren’t going well, teams like Missouri, Rapid City and Tulsa made moves to make the team better. From this writer’s perspective, it did not seem that the coaching staff and front office were working in lock step to make moves in an effort to better the team.
So, will next year be different?
It is too early to answer that. There are good players on the roster but tough decisions will have to be made, including whether to continue with the current veteran core, some of whom have been with the team for three-plus seasons. What identity will next year’s team have? High-scoring and physical, or tough to score and passive — both were seen at times this past season.
More importantly, the organization from ownership down should take the time early in this offseason to look at what it will take to get back to the winning ways the fans were promised when the Steven Brothers purchased Wichita in 2011. Two seasons of missing the playoffs with a coach the caliber of McClelland should be viewed as organizational failures, from ownership down to the stick boys.
“We’re about winning and doing what it takes to win,” Brandon Steven said at their introductory news conference in August 2011. “We’re definitely going to be hands on and we’re excited to be here.”
These are precarious times for the franchise, which has seen its average attendance fall from a high of 6,249 per game in 2011-12 to 5,007 per game this past season. Ticket prices are going up and the team is struggling to stay in the spotlight that is dominated by the overwhelming popularity of Wichita State Basketball. Another season not in the playoffs could mean eradication from the spotlight the team held at one time in their history.
“It’s fresh right now,” he told Thunder beat writer Jeff Lutz. “I’m going to take some time (and) I’m going to re-evaluate everything.”
It goes without saying, but if the Thunder organization wishes to stay in contention for the playoffs and championships, locking up McClelland to a long-term deal should be priority one, unless General Manager Joel Lomurno has someone equally as successful on his short list and feels they could do a better job.
One thing all Thunder fans can count on is that it will be interesting to see what kind of team identity is carved out in these next five and a half months and if any of the questions get answered, or if the fans will grow even louder with their displeasure.
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