WICHITA, Kan. – A little over a year ago, Bruce Ramsay made his return to the ECHL coaching ranks, inheriting a Wichita Thunder organization left in complete disarray by outgoing head coach Malcolm Cameron.
After only re-signing just two players from the 2018-19 club, Ramsay worked hard to find young, hungry, quality hockey players to rebuild the team’s foundation. While the club had its share of stumbles during the 2019-20 campaign, the Thunder head coach is eager to add to that foundation during the upcoming free agency period, which starts next Tuesday.
“We had some great young rookies and have a great nucleus, but when I look at our roster that’s protected compared to last year, we are going to be way ahead of the game (going into free agency),” Ramsay said.
Despite the Thunder’s sub-.500 record last season (finishing the season with a 24-30-8-0 record), there were bright spots.
The brightest star undoubtedly came on the power play. In mid-November, the Thunder’s power-play conversion rate was a paltry 9.1 percent, worst in the ECHL. That group rallied to finish with the 11th best power-play in the league, a 17.9 percent success rate. Much of that success comes at the hands of defenseman Patrik Parkkonen, who finished the season with 18 power-play assists, tied with former Thunder defenseman Keoni Texeira for the league-lead.
“What a find he [Parkkonen] was,” said Thunder General Manager Joel Lomurno. “Probably top-3, if not the best defenseman in the league. He scores, is smart, fast, and a good guy to build around [on the back end].”
Up front, veteran forward Stefan Fournier had his best year as a pro, putting up career highs in goals (24), assists (18), points (42) and power-play goals (8), good for the team-lead in all those categories.
Rookie forward Peter Crinella, despite being injured and scratched at times last season, was on pace to finish with 26 goals. Still, his 19 lamplighters led all Thunder rookies and were tied for the 12th most among rookies in the league when play was halted in mid-March. His five power-play goals, three game-winning goals, and a +1 rating proved to the Thunder coaching staff he’s a valuable asset in any situation.
Finally, in a defensive group filled with rookie and second-year players, the need for stability was obvious. In early December, Ramsay cashed in his future considerations acquired from Reading in the Ralph Cuddemi deal to land defenseman Jacob Graves, who immediately became a shutdown defenseman for the Thunder. Whether he was paired with Sean Allen or Vincent Desharnais, Graves brought experience and some added size to the blueline for Wichita.
“He’s tough, solid, stay-at-home, good leader and a great guy to have on the bench,” Ramsay said when speaking of Graves. “He’s as tough as they come, too.”
So where were the holes in last year’s team?
One of the hallmarks of last year’s Thunder squad was the inconsistency, whether it was game-to-game or period-to-period. That inconsistency led to Wichita allowing four or more goals 28 times last season, for a record of 2-23-3-0. Another source of inconsistency came on the road, where the team went 7-21-5-0.
Looking ahead to the opening of the free agency period, Ramsay says has commitments from at least six players and the team will make their first signing announcement sometime next week. Throughout the period, he’ll be looking to add high-powered offensive forwards, bring back key pieces from last year’s team, as well as add depth pieces to the lineup.
“We look at some of the teams we played against that had a lot of success, they had elite players, definitive first lines. when you played Utah, everybody knew what line was going to be out there.” Ramsay said. “Last year, Patrik Parkkonen was the leading scorer on our team and he’s a defenseman. We need to have two or three guys on our team that’s going to put up 60 to 80 points. If we had that last year, with the role players we had, we would have been set.”
Affiliation-wise, Lomurno recently told The Sin Bin that it’s “90 to 95 percent likely” that Wichita and Edmonton will be partners for a fourth season. Ramsay said he and Oilers Assistant General Manager, Bill Scott, have been in communication regarding plans for the upcoming season and said that there would be “more” players in Wichita than there have been in recent seasons.
“I’ve been talking to the coaches in Bakersfield and there was an agreement between us that we thought the organization lacked a little depth,” Ramsay said. “Now with the GM change in Edmonton, Kenny Holland (Oilers GM) has been known to work well with his two affiliates so they’re working to correct some issues from the past and make sure there’s a lot of depth and elite players in both Bakersfield and Wichita. It’s all been very positive”
Edmonton and Bakersfield have worked to sign some high-caliber collegiate and junior hockey players, including James Hamblin, who finished third in scoring (92 points) last season with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League (WHL). The 21-year-old forward led the Medicine Hat in scoring in each of the past two seasons and finished his career with 283 points (115g-168a) in 323 WHL games. The crop of players being signed has Ramsay excited for what he might get from above:
“When you look at the players they are signing to two-way contracts, some of those players will be in Wichita. They’re quality players coming out of either major-junior or college…hard players for me to sign to ECHL contracts and that gets me excited.”
The Thunder are scheduled to open their 29th season, seventh in the ECHL, on Friday, October 16 against the Tulsa Oilers.
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