WICHITA, Kan. – Without a doubt, the 2020-21 season will go down as one of the craziest in Thunder history. Play one game, take 16 days off. Play eight more games, catch COVID, get shut down for two weeks. Play the same opponents over and over and over again, make the playoffs for the first time in two seasons, get Disney-on-Ice’d, and take the eventual champs to overtime in game five of the opening-round playoff series. Oh, and you’re doing this without the help of your primary affiliate, leaving you to seek out a “handshake” affiliation.
And that oversimplification is just the stuff that’s public knowledge.
Through all of that, the 29th edition of the Wichita Thunder was one of the best teams the franchise has iced in the last ten years. For the first time in at least that long, there were championship aspirations; not just being whispered about in the nooks and crannies of Intrust Bank Arena, but openly and boastfully shouted wherever the players and staff went. It was a fun team that enjoyed one another’s company, the coach leading them, and playing the game.
As we turn the page to the 2021-22 season, the 30th season of Thunder hockey, the challenge for the players and coaching staff will be to repeat what they did one season ago, against tougher competition.
Regular Season Record: 41-22-6-2, 90 points, 2nd in Western Conference
Western Conference Semifinals: Lost to Fort Wayne 3-2
- The Thunder had the best road record in the ECHL, setting a team-record with 22 wins. Overall, they went 22-10-3-1 away from “the Vault”
- High-end offensive talent on the roster with league MVP Anthony Beauregard and Matteo Gennaro (who earned himself another crack at the AHL). When combined with Stefan Fournier and Jay Dickman, the quartet combined for 89 of the 218 goals scored last season, or 40.8% of the overall goal scoring
- Dean Stewart excelled after Patrik Parkkonen left the team in early April. From April 10 to the end of the regular season, he racked up 18 points (2G, 16A), including an 11-game point streak – second-best among defensemen – that spanned from April 17 to May 6
- Goaltending injuries were an issue for the Thunder this season, and this is one circumstance where the surplus of players on the trade/free agent market was a plus for the team. In the end, the tandem of Evan Buitenhuis and Evan Weninger was among the league’s best 1-2 tandem, sporting a combined record of 31-15-4-1, a 2.47 goals against average, .920 save percentage, with four shutouts.
- The Thunder lacked a true centerman who could win faceoffs at crucial points in the game. This was evident in the power-play, where the Thunder finished next-to-last in the league, and was a glaring weakness in the series against Fort Wayne. Having players who can win faceoffs and get the offense to work quickly is invaluable in professional hockey
- While the Thunder had high-end scoring, the depth scoring left something to be desired. After Dickman, the next five forwards in the Thunder lineup; Beau Starrett, Peter Crinella, Spencer Dorowicz, Brayden Watts, and Stephen Johnson had 56 of the 218 goals scored (25.7% of goals last season)
- While the goaltending and defense as a whole were stingy (2.68 goals allowed per game average – 2nd best in ECHL,) the volume of shots getting to Thunder netminders was impressive. Opponents on average fired 35.46 shots per game on Thunder netminders, which was last in the league
Room for Improvement:
So, the question becomes: how can the Thunder make it back-to-back trips to the Kelly Cup Playoffs? In the opening days of free agency, head coach Bruce Ramsay has brought back a good portion of the corps from last season and there will be some players from the qualified offer list who won’t come back. There will be help coming to the Air Capital from Bakersfield, according to Ramsay. In spite of all that, there are several areas the Thunder can improve.
- Acquire a Veteran Centerman: I get what Ramsay and the coaching staff was trying to do last season with the additions of John Albert and Ryan White to the lineup, but in the end, both players weren’t the true game-changers we expect former higher league players to be at this level. Albert looked slow, somewhat disinterested, and was a liability on defense; while White took too many penalties, most coming at inopportune times.
If the Thunder have designs on taking that next step, they have to use a veteran spot to bring in a centerman that can be used in all situations. In 2018-19, when the Thunder finished with the top-ranked power play in the league, they had two centermen who could be utilized in any situation: Mark MacMillan and Steven Iacobellis. If this power play can meet the penalty kill in efficiency, this team could be really good.
- Improve Depth Scoring: There will be little doubt that Crinella and Johnson will be asked to take their game up a notch this coming season as they become the veteran faces of the team. When it comes to who fills in behind, this should be an area that Bakersfield helps in.
- Have the Same Nasty Defense: Last season’s team featured a nasty, rugged defense that loved playing physical and blocking shots. If this season’s team has the same makeup on defense as last season’s team, it will be fun to watch.
2021-22 Prediction Sure to Go Wrong:
Year three of the Ramsay era will continue to build on the success they had in year two. The team winning the Mountain Division and advancing to the Western Conference Finals, where they will face the Fort Wayne Komets and give everyone what we craved this past June…a seven-game playoff series.
Despite the loss in the opening round to Fort Wayne, the Thunder had a wildly successful season in 2020-21. When you broke down the Western Conference bracket at the beginning of the playoffs, it was a complete tossup between Allen, Fort Wayne, and Wichita as to who would win the Kelly Cup. For the Thunder to be in that conversation, have the league MVP, and reigning Coach of the Year behind the bench are true building blocks for getting the organization back to where it needs to be: a championship-contending hockey club.
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