WICHITA, Kan. – The Wichita Thunder reached the midpoint of the 2018-19 ECHL season last Friday night in Utah, falling to the Utah Grizzlies by the score of 3-1. With 80 percent of their current five-game road trip completed, the Thunder have collected just two of a possible ten points; both coming in overtime losses.
For the season, Wichita has 38 points and are tied with Kansas City for the fourth and final playoff position in the ECHL’s Mountain Division, though, Kansas City has the edge on Wichita in overall wins (KC 18, WIC 15), goal differential (KC +4, WIC -7), and the head-to-head series (KC leads 5-4). The Thunder sits six points back of Tulsa (44) for third, seven points back of Idaho (45) for second, and eight points behind Utah (46) for the pole position in the Mountain.
Interestingly, the 38 points represent a low-water mark for the club for points after 37 games when they finished the season with a winning record. To put it in perspective, the 2017-18 edition of the Thunder had 47 points through 37 games (made the playoffs, but barely), while the 2014-15 squad had 42 points and missed the playoff field by seven points.
Despite battling constant roster upheaval thanks to injuries, call-ups and finding the right player combination, the Thunder have put together a decent first half of the season, but considerable work remains to reach the team’s goals of being in the top-four, securing home-ice in at least one round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, and possibly winning the division.
The grades below reflect the solid start to the season the team has had while acknowledging inconsistencies and the significant room for improvement that exists.
For the entire first half of the season, the Thunder offense has been driven by one line; PC Labrie – Steven Iacobellis – Dyson Stevenson. It wasn’t until the calendar turned to December (and the return of Mark MacMillan,) that the wick was turned up on Ralph Cuddemi‘s game and we saw added production from the team’s second line.
Back to Labrie-Iacobellis-Stevenson, if I told you that all three players would have career highs in something other than penalty minutes when the season started, would you believe me? Chemistry has a funny way of making things work and this line has driven the bus all season for the Thunder, producing 31.3 percent of the team’s total offense through 37 games. Digging deeper, the trio has scored 29.1 percent of the team’s goals and chipped in 32.1 percent of the team’s assists. For Thunder faithful, it has to be scary to think where this team would be without those three guys.
Cuddemi and MacMillan have rekindled their chemistry from a season ago when both had offensive career highs. During the month of December, the duo combined for 36 points (18G, 18A). Meanwhile, Cam Reid and Jesse Gabrielle have been nice additions on that line.
The sore spot for this team continues to be the third line, which has not been consistent all season, regardless of the personnel on that line; Ryan Van Stralen, Lane Bauer, Eric Freschi, Jakob Stukel, Nolan Vesey, Colin Larkin, etc. There have been flashes of combinations that have worked, especially when Stefan Fournier was put with Bauer and Van Stralen shortly after his acquisition from Orlando.
Currently, the Thunder are averaging 2.97 goals scored per game, which is 22nd best in the ECHL. There is little doubt that for Wichita to be considered as a team that can do damage in the Kelly Cup Playoffs, they’ll need continued production from the top two lines, and the third line to get things going.
In my opinion, this was the hardest group to evaluate since the six who started the season on the blueline; Travis Brown, Tyler Elbrecht, Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin, Dylan Labbe, Keoni Texeira, and Jeremy Beaudry have played all of five games together as a unit, plus there has been a lot of upheaval due to injuries. When this article was written, Brown and Labbe remain sidelined with injuries, but there has been no announcement on when they might return to the Thunder lineup, if at all.
Head coach Malcolm Cameron was able to pluck Kelly Cup champion defenseman Eric Roy away from Allen (a clear win for Wichita;) added Zach Todd, who has been a solid stopgap on the back end; plus brought in free agent defenseman and Kelly Cup Champion Gabriel Verpaelst in the last eight weeks (though Verpaelst has yet to play, again, no formal announcement on when he might see game action.)
The biggest bright spot on the back end for Wichita this season has been Keoni Texeira, who was left off the Western Conference All-Star Team but has put together a Rookie of the Year-caliber campaign. Entering play on Friday, Texeira leads the ECHL with 19 assists on the power-play, is tied for the league lead in power-play points (19), is second among league defensemen in assists (23), fourth among ECHL rearguardsmen with 25 points (2G, 23A).
Even with having three shutouts on the season as a group, the Thunder defense, through 37 games, has allowed 3.16 goals per game which is a .25 goals per game worse than last year at this time, when the Thunder allowed 2.92 goals per game on average. More to the point, the defense allows the fourth most shots per game in the ECHL, with netminders seeing on average just over 34.5 shots per game.
Call it a “bend but don’t break” defense if you want to, but for Wichita to be a playoff contending squad, the defense will have to play tighter.
For as loaded as the forward group and defensive corps was to begin the season, one of the major storylines to watch was how Stuart Skinner and Dylan Wells would perform in net as true rookies for Wichita. The duo alternated hot and cold stretches for the first half of the season.
Skinner is in desperate need of a break, having played 14 straight games for Wichita since the Wells call-up to Bakersfield. Currently, the rookie netminder ranks second among ECHL netminders in shutouts (3), minutes played (1532), third in saves (784), third in shootout wins (3) and is first in shootout losses (3), a very solid rookie season by any measure. Recently signed netminder Matt Hewitt could signal that Wells may be in California long-term and will hopefully provide some stability in net for Cameron.
This grade is more of a tip of the cap to the development the duo has had in Wichita this season.
Special Teams: A-
What started as an eyesore for Wichita, has become its backbone. The Thunder power play enters the second half of the season first in the ECHL on the power play, connecting on 24.3 percent of their chances this season (33 goals in 133 chances). Additionally, the Thunder have scored man-advantage goals in 24 of its last 29 games.
The penalty kill has been decent, too, sitting 12th in the ECHL, with an overall kill rate of 84.7 percent. The disparity between the power play and penalty kill prevented me from giving a higher grade in this category.
At one point during the early part of the season, Wichita had ten contracted players on its roster. Now, that number is down to five and there’s no indication it’s going up anytime soon. Recent recalls of players like John McFarland, Nolan Vesey, and Jared Wilson have left Cameron scrambling to pick players off the scrap heap, yet those three players have seen little in-game ice time in Bakersfield. At the start of play Friday, the three have combined to play in six games since their recalls, with Wilson not seeing game action for over a month.
Regardless of who the team is, anytime you have players sitting on the shelf that long and it’s not injury-related, there has to be concern about the sharpness of the player once they return to game action and, more importantly, how it will affect their development moving forward. Sure, California is nice this time of year (I think,) but ultimately, what is to be gained by having three players sit there and be warm bodies when they could be fine-tuning their game a league lower? This is the double-edged sword that burns ECHL teams over-and-over again.
That said, the two success stories born out through the partnership with Edmonton this season have been in net with both Skinner and Wells becoming comfortable in their own skin at the pro level. Having that tandem together for the stretch drive and potential playoff run could prove to be a huge plus for Wichita.
After a slow start to the season, the Thunder have clawed their way back into the playoff conversation in the street fight that is the ECHL’s Mountain Division. Wichita is currently 4-3-2-1 in their 24-game stretch against division opponents, which will come to an end just after Valentine’s Day. My thought is that if Wichita can somehow get 12 to 15 wins out of that stretch and not sustain any more serious injuries or major roster perturbations, then this is a playoff team when the dust settles in early April.
If this team gets in the playoffs, with all the pieces they have up front, on the back end, and in net, then this team can go on a deep run.
Consistency is needed in all phases of the game before we can change the “ifs” to “are.”