WICHITA, Kan. – After an offseason where the previous regime left the cupboard bare, the 2019-20 season for Wichita was one of a rebuild, filled with promise, and one where some solid building blocks emerged.
Final Record: 24-30-8-0, 56 points (6th in Mountain, 10th in Western Conference)
Leading Scorer: Patrik Parkkonen — 45 points (8G, 37A)
Best Netminder: Mitch Gillam, 15-19-4-0, 3.48 goals against average, .905 save percentage, two shutouts
High Point: The month of November. Wichita shook off a 2-2-2 month of October, put together a November where they went 7-4-3-0 and were at one point, at the top of the ECHL. In addition to the big names on the Thunder roster, Jakob Stukel, Jack Combs, and Chris Crane, they were getting depth scoring from players such as Ostap Safin, Fabrizio Ricci, Spencer Dorowicz, and defenseman Brendan Smith.
Low Point: The month of February. With an 11-game slate in the second month of 2020, the Thunder managed to win just three times, likely killing their playoff chances.
Highlight of the Season: Who can forget the Wednesday night matchup in mid-November between the Rapid City Rush and Wichita Thunder? Both teams were looking to get to the top of the ECHL standings, and the game had a playoff-like feel to it. Wichita’s power play had been dismal to start the season, but registered a beat with 13 seconds left in regulation, when Jack Combs lit the lamp to give Wichita a 4-3 win.
Surprises/Disappointments: The biggest surprise this season had to be Stefan Fournier, who’s role greatly expanded this season to one where he registered career-highs in goals (24), assists (18) and points (42). He still chipped in with physicality, too, including the fight of the year in the ECHL (yes, we know there are double voices…):
Players leave for Europe all the time, but some have a more significant impact on a team than others. You could make that case for Chris Crane when he left for Storahamer in Norway on February 14. At the time, the move left the Thunder with nine forwards and six defensemen at the start of the weekend. By the end of the game Friday night against Tulsa, head coach Bruce Ramsay was scratching and clawing to put a roster on the ice. It was very disappointing to see a veteran leader on a very young team walk out on the guys he had been to battle with for over 50 games, in search of a more abundant payday.
If the season continued…how would it have played out?
When play stopped, the Thunder were in the middle of their final extended road trip of the season, a seven-gamer through the Central Division. The Thunder was scheduled to finish the season with seven of their last ten games on INTRUST Bank Arena ice, four of which coming against the Tulsa Oilers. Wichita had struggled against Tulsa during the season, winning four of 11 games in the series. In reality, Wichita would have needed to sweep the final three games of that road trip, something they had not done-to-date, and play nearly perfect hockey on home-ice to make the playoffs. While it would have been nice to see playoff hockey, the odds were simply too long to see it this season.
Focus for the Offseason
The extended offseason gives Ramsay a chance to do a deep-dive on his roster, to see who he would want to bring back for a second season behind the Thunder bench. There are some diamonds in the rough on the Thunder roster; forwards Peter Crinella, Ricci, Beau Starrett, and Billy Exell; defensemen Jacob Graves, Sean Allen, Garrett Schmitz, and Patrik Parkkonen. And while he had a down year, Mitch Gillam is a massive piece to any Thunder success next season. Add in the veteran leadership from captain Riley Weselowski and Stefan Fournier, and the foundation is in place to build on.
A focus of this offseason is to add to the offensive depth. Should they return to Wichita, Crinella, Ricci, Starrett, and Exell would be expected to take a step forward in offensive production. But this season’s roster was missing a catalyst (see Adam Pleskach) that elevates the forward group. Ramsay thought he had that in both Crane and Combs this season, but both left for greener pastures in Europe.
The secondary focus of this offseason is to find another stay-at-home defenseman. Vincent Desharnais and Allen showed signs of developing into that role this season but still needed some seasoning. Another third or fourth-year defenseman, like Graves, could be just what the doctor ordered for Ramsay.
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