WICHITA, Kan. – Coming off the most successful season in their ECHL run, the Wichita Thunder suffered body blow after body blow this offseason and are fielding a very young roster heading into the 2021-22 season.
How will that pay off this season? We’ll take a look at that shortly. But first, a look back at the 2020-21 run in statistical form.
Last Season in Review
Record and Playoff Appearance: 41-22-6-2 (90 points, 2nd in Western Conference), lost to Fort Wayne Komets in Western Conference Semifinals, 3 games to 2.
Season Summary: The Wichita Thunder capitalized off a loaded talent pool last season, led by ECHL MVP Anthony Beauregard, who posted 71 points (22G, 49A). In the final award analysis, Thunder players finished in the top five in the MVP, Most Outstanding Defenseman, and Most Outstanding Goaltender awards, and head coach Bruce Ramsay was named the winner of the ECHL’s Coach of the Year award. Thunder players also comprised one-third of the spots in the ECHL’s all-rookie, all-first, and all-second teams. On the ice, they were able to secure home-ice advantage (such that it was) for the first-round playoff series and pushed the eventual Kelly Cup champion Komets to overtime, giving them their stiffest test en route to the title.
Leading Scorer: Anthony Beauregard – 71 points
Goals For/Against & League Rank: 218 goals for, 4th best in ECHL; 190 goals against, 2nd best in ECHL
Power Play Conversion Percentage & League Rank: 36-252, 14.3% efficiency – 13th best in ECHL
Penalty Kill Percentage & League Rank: 254-294 killed (40 power-play goals allowed), 86.4% kill rate – 2nd in ECHL
- Jay Dickman: Returns to the Thunder after a season where he made the league’s All-Rookie team and posted 47 points (19G, 28A)
- Brayden Watts: Re-signed in Wichita after finding his groove on the team’s third-line last season, where he posted 30 points (10G, 20A) in 62 games
- Peter Crinella: Begins his third season in the Air Capital with 61 points (33G, 28A) in 118 ECHL games, including 29 points last season while playing third-line/tenth forward minutes.
- Evan Buitenhuis: The runner-up in the ECHL Goaltender of the Year race last season comes back to Wichita for his first full season in Thunder blue. After being acquired in late March, he went 15-5-0-3, with a 2.19 goals against average, a .937 save percentage, and three shutouts.
- Anthony Beauregard: The ECHL MVP continued the trend of league MVP winners heading overseas, signing with Sierre HC in the Swiss League in late May.
- Stefan Fournier: The former player/assistant for Wichita bailed in mid-September for a team in the Slovakian Hockey League. In two-plus seasons in Wichita, he played in 145 regular season games, scored 63 goals, and registered 50 assists. His 108 points in a Thunder uniform are the most by a Thunder player in the ECHL era.
- Mathieu Gagnon: One of the veterans on the Thunder blueline, he signed with the Trois-Rivieres Lions in the offseason and will make his season debut tonight.
- Spencer Dorowicz: The fourth-year pro put together his best two seasons in Wichita, but signed to play in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League with the Dundee Stars in the offseason
Schedule Breakdown for 2021-22
The Thunder will open the season at home on Saturday, October 23 against heated rival, Allen. Wichita will close Opening Weekend with a game on Sunday, October 24.
The Thunder will host two new teams at INTRUST Bank Arena this year. Wheeling comes to town on Saturday, October 30 and Newfoundland visits on Wednesday, January 26. Wichita will also face a new team this year, traveling to Iowa on Wednesday, December 1, and Wednesday, February 23.
Wichita will play the majority of its schedule against divisional rivals. The Thunder will play Allen 17 times, Kansas City 15 times, and Tulsa 12 times. The Thunder will play Kansas City five straight times from New Year’s Eve to Tuesday, January 11, and then will close the season with three straight against the Mavericks in April.
Returning for the 2021-22 season are Idaho and Toledo. Wichita will play Idaho seven times with the first meeting in the Air Capital on Friday, February 4. Toledo comes to town for the first time since the 2016-17 season when the Walleye visit INTRUST Bank Arena on St. Patrick’s Day.
Top Storylines for 2021-22
- Will the forward group leftover from last season – Crinella, Dickman, Matteo Gennaro, Stephen Johnson, and Watts – be enough to carry the offensive water for the Thunder this season?
- Will the Thunder receive additional players from Bakersfield? On the opening night Thunder roster, there will be one player from AHL Bakersfield (or at least their contract) on the roster…Matteo Gennaro.
- Can the defense play with the same edge/snarl it did last season?
- What will happen with Beauregard’s and Fournier’s rights? Will they be held on to with the hope they come back to help with a playoff push (seems unlikely for a variety of reasons,) or do they get traded for higher-end offensive players.
- Which of the core group from last season takes over the leadership mantle for Wichita? The leadership group took quite a hit for Wichita in the offseason and it does not appear Jacob Graves will be with the club anytime soon, as he’s reportedly mulling retirement.
Prediction Sure to Go Right
When the puck drops Saturday night in Allen, the Thunder roster will feature one veteran player who has played in an NHL regular-season game (Dylan Olsen,) two players who have played a combined 286 AHL games (Gennaro & Olsen), and six rookies.
This team, one of the youngest rosters in the league, will go through its share of growing pains. With the youth on the roster, it will be imperative for Ramsay and his coaching staff to find a way to be positive, continue hammering home good habits to the players, and correcting the errors when they occur.
The bottom line for fans is that this roster could be better at the end of the season, than it will be at the beginning.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong
With the roster as currently constructed, and absolutely nobody should be fixing their eyes to Bakersfield looking for help, it is extremely hard to see how this roster finishes in the top half of the league in goals for per game. The goaltending and defense should be there for Wichita, but the offense remains a huge question mark for me.
It would be enjoyable to watch this team make it into the playoffs for a second straight season, but I don’t see that happening for the Thunder this season.
How do you think the Thunder will do this season? Will they miss the playoffs in shocking fashion, cruise their way to an early playoff exit or maybe storm their way to a Kelly Cup? Let us know below!
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