WICHITA, Kan. – Wichita Thunder head coach Bruce Ramsay has been open about it; last year’s ECHL Trade Deadline was one of the toughest things he’s ever had to do as a head coach.
In a series of moves, he released fan-favorite and his player/assistant coach Stefan Fournier, traded forward Matteo Gennaro to the eventual Kelly Cup champion Florida Everblades as part of a three-team trade, sent rugged defenseman Sean Allen to Cincinnati, shipped soon-to-be veteran defenseman Jacob Graves to playoff-bound Atlanta, moved fellow defenseman Cam Clarke to the Toledo Walleye, and gave defenseman Nick Minerva and goaltender Bailey Brkin their walking papers. By every indication imaginable, it was a bloodletting the likes of which the league hadn’t seen in a number of years.
The return on those players brought Ramsay the foundation for this year’s version of the Thunder; forwards Quinn Preston, Jake Wahlin, and Peter Bates, along with defensemen Chris McKay, Kyle Rhodes, and Connor Walters. Combined with the additions of defensemen Dylan MacPherson and Cole MacDonald, along with the return of forwards Brayden Watts, Michal Stinil, and Jay Dickman… and you have a club that is in contention for a berth in the 2023 Kelly Cup Playoffs with just 30 days left in the ECHL’s regular season.
The season started with optimism, with the Thunder capitalizing off a home-heavy schedule to sit in second place of the ECHL’s Mountain Division for much of the season. Those fortunes turned on a dime in a late January trip to Idaho – the same place that convinced Ramsay to take a wrecking ball to his roster one season ago – when Watts, the Thunder’s leading scorer at the time, went down with a mid-body injury. The hope is for Watts to return to the Thunder roster in a matter of weeks.
Since the Watts injury, the Thunder are 4-13-2, have allowed four or more goals 12 times, and have scored less than two goals in a game 11 times. They’ve lost team captain Dylan MacPherson to recall to the Abbotsford Canucks (he’s played just twice since his recall on February 17,) Timur Ibragimov was shipped to the New Jersey Devils organization as part of the Timo Meier trade, and goaltender Evan Buitenhuis performed his in-season disappearing act for the second time in as many seasons.
With the AHL affiliate San Jose Barracuda making a push for the playoffs in their own right (they’re currently in eighth place in the Pacific Division, three points out of a playoff spot) and battling injuries, it’s not certain when – or even if – the cavalry will show up for the Thunder.
So, what does Ramsay believe his team’s greatest need is? How aggressive will he be in upgrading his team? He allowed Field Pass Hockey access as he and assistant coach John Gurskis worked the phones in the last few hours of the ECHL Trade Deadline.
Thursday Morning, INTRUST Bank Arena, 11:15 a.m. –
On a cloudy and mild morning, there was an air of tension as you walked down the long hallway to Ramsay’s office. This time of year is tough for both players and coaches.
A beleaguered Ramsay sat at his desk, face buried in his laptop, with his cell phone dinging almost non-stop. You can tell the last six weeks have weighed on him, but there he is, hard at work to improve his squad.
“I really want another skilled forward,” he says.
For the first time of what would be quite a few times, he goes over the number of forwards and defensemen he has on the roster, putting together what his roster might look like tomorrow night in Kansas City, and assesses what pieces he could give up.
Messages were exchanged, and phone conversations were had, but there wasn’t much traction until a call from Kalamazoo shortly before noon.
First-year head coach Joel Martin has been busy this trade deadline, moving players to several different teams. Martin is looking for a defenseman. After exchanging proposals and taking a few minutes to filter what the moves could mean for their club, the deal is agreed to.
Rhodes to Kalamazoo for forward Brett Boeing and a future consideration.
“All right, got him,” a relieved Ramsay said.
From there, the paperwork and player notifications begin. A short time later, the deal is made official in a procedural trade call with the league.
Thursday Afternoon, INTRUST Bank Arena, 2:15 p.m. –
As the sands in the Trade Deadline hourglass faded away, Ramsay continued to search for any last-minute moves, and while there were some inquiries, nothing came to fruition.
“I just wanted to see what’s out there,” Ramsay said. “We’re going to be getting healthy here in the next couple of weeks and we have a new amateur player, too. We’re filling out the lineup the right way and going to do what we can to get ourselves into the playoffs.”
Depth is a huge bargaining chip this time of the year, and the Thunder had that, especially on the back end, with nine defensemen entering Thursday’s deadline.
“I stockpiled my defensemen to this point for the very reason of grabbing a player that might come available like Brett Boeing,” Ramsay said. The third-year forward is coming off a career year with Toledo in 2021-22, where he posted 23 goals and 46 points, as well as played in every one of Toledo’s playoff games.
It’s likely Boeing makes his Wichita debut tomorrow night.
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