WICHITA, Kan. – One season after making the Kelly Cup playoffs for the first time, the Wichita Thunder are looking to build off that and make a deep run in 2018-19. The Thunder roster features ten returning players from the 2017-18 squad, nine players signed through free-agency and eight players assigned to the club from either Bakersfield or Edmonton.
Nuts and Bolts:
2017-18 Record: 34-30-6-2 (76 points)
Division/Conference Finish: 4th in Mountain/8th in Western Conference
Playoff Finish: Eliminated (4-2) in the Mountain Division Semifinals by Colorado
Goals For Per Game: 3.08 (15th in ECHL)
Goals Against Per Game: 3.26 (17th in ECHL)
Power Play: 35-245 (14.3% efficiency — 22nd in ECHL)
Penalty Kill: 218-272 (80.1% kill rate — 23rd in ECHL)
Affiliation Stability: For the first time in two years, head coach Malcolm Cameron did not have to focus on landing a new affiliation for the Thunder franchise. The stability allowed Edmonton and Bakersfield to place eight players — Colin Larkin, Ryan Van Stralen, Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin, Jared Wilson, Stuart Skinner, and Dylan Wells originally; plus John McFarland and Jake Kulevich (announced by Bakersfield mid-afternoon Thursday,) on the Thunder’s roster. When you add Travis Brown returning from San Antonio, there will be nine players from the AHL & NHL on the Thunder roster, the most ever, by the end of the season’s first weekend.
Youth in Net: Wichita will have a very young tandem in net this season. Third-round NHL Draft pick Stuart Skinner is the presumed opening night starter, and the 19-year-old will be making his pro debut after a solid 2017-18 season with Swift Current in the Western Hockey League.
Skinner’s co-hort in the cage is Dylan Wells, who was assigned by Bakersfield to Wichita late last regular season after an injury to Nick Riopel. Wells saw limited action in Wichita’s regular-season finale against the Colorado Eagles and allowed five San Jose goals on October 6, while in AHL Bakersfield.
Leadership Aplenty: Every team needs a good nucleus of leaders and entering the season, this Thunder squad has that in spades. Led by Dyson Stevenson, the leadership group includes player/assistant coach Pierre-Cedric Labrie, former Kansas City Mavericks captain Tyler Elbrecht, offensive standout and former college captain Ralph Cuddemi, and Keoni Texeira, who was a captain on the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. It’s fair to say this is the deepest leadership group Wichita has seen in a long time.
Head coach Malcolm Cameron said at Thunder media day Wednesday:
“We have a lot of talented guys, we know we are going to have some movement up to the American Hockey League. We certainly feel this is a very deep group, A group I’m probably the most excited for in my three years here.”
Greg Chase: Chase returns to Wichita after spending the last three-plus months of the 2017-18 season in Springfield of the American Hockey League. Chase’s rights were traded by Edmonton to Florida in mid-December. Prior to the trade, Chase had 17 points (7G, 10A) in 17 games in a Thunder uniform. Chase’s addition to the lineup, combined with Cuddemi, gives Wichita a very solid 1-2 offensive punch up front.
Keoni Texeira: The rookie defenseman finished his five-year Western Hockey League career with 143 points from the blueline. He’ll be called upon to help add an offensive punch in special team situations for Wichita.
Jakob Stukel: The late-in-the-offseason addition for Wichita has NHL-caliber speed and hands. The 21-year-old forward is coming off a four-year career in the Western Hockey League with Calgary and Vancouver, where he scored 103 goals (197 points total) in 265 games.
Gone but Not Forgotten:
Chad Butcher: The second-year forward signed in Allen during the offseason.
Travis Ewanyk: After a bumpy 2017-18 season in Wichita, Ewanyk signed with Krefeld Pinguine of the German DEL league during the offseason. He’s playing with former Thunder forward Greger Hanson.
Shane Starrett: Starrett was with the Edmonton Oilers as the emergency goaltender during their European trip. The second-year netminder is expected to stick in AHL Bakersfield for much of the upcoming season.
Sin Bin Swami Sez:
This Thunder team appears to be loaded offensively and has a solid defensive group. Early on, the focus will be on defense and goaltending, since it’s nearly impossible for the Thunder to get in an offensive shootout with teams each and every night.
Wichita got off to a 16-2-2 start a season ago but limped to the finish line, going 18-28-6 in the regular season’s final 52 games. Can Wichita sustain a good start throughout the season? Cameron has set expectations high for this group; win the division, get home-ice in the playoffs to start. For that to happen, the defense, goaltending, and special teams must be markedly improved over where they finished in those categories one season ago.
I feel like Wichita will be a playoff team, and if they get in, could do some real damage.
What Say You?