WICHITA, Kan. – The ECHL’s shortest offseason ever, 110 days, is just about over. Rookie camps and prospect tournaments are over and training camp for all NHL teams will begin later this week.
We briefly missed hockey, blinked, and soon, hockey will return.
Earlier this week, I asked for input on what grade you would give the Thunder offseason. Thanks to those of you who took the time to vote, here are the results:
Alright, Thunder fans…time for a poll question!
What grade would you give the Wichita Thunder offseason-to-date?
— Matthew Harding (@FPHThunder) September 20, 2021
For the Wichita Thunder, this has been a pivotal offseason. After forcing the eventual Kelly Cup champion Fort Wayne Komets to overtime in game five of the Western Conference Semifinals, a decision had to be made: to keep building off last year’s squad with the reigning ECHL Coach of the Year, Bruce Ramsay, or take a mile’s worth of steps back.
The losses began early and have become increasingly impactful for the club as the offseason progressed. It started with the announcement in late May that ECHL MVP Anthony Beauregard would make a move overseas, which wasn’t overly shocking since the trend has been for ECHL MVP winners to move abroad, rather than stay with their team.
On the opening day of free agency in the ECHL, fan-favorite Mathieu Gagnon was announced as one of the first signings made by the Trois-Rivieres Lions.
Five weeks later, centerman and one of the best penalty killers from last season, Beau Starrett, announced he was retiring to take a job outside of hockey.
Then, over the course of 15 days this month, the Thunder lost Riley Weselowski to the Kansas City Mavericks, while player/assistant coach Stefan Fournier left to join a team in Slovakia.
Finally, there are the losses you don’t see coming but have a feeling they are.
Ladling in the AHL/ECHL deals for Matteo Gennaro (Bakersfield) and Dean Stewart (Manitoba) – both of whom could see considerable time in the AHL this season – the Thunder have lost five of their six top scorers from last year (overseas, AHL deals, retirement), which equals up to 239 of the Thunder’s 596 points – or 40 percent of the total offense. On the back end, you lose a veteran presence in both Gagnon and Weselowski.
In the locker room, this is a colossal loss. Fournier was a bridge from the coach’s office to the locker room, kept the room light, and was a significant help in recruiting.
Weselowski brought a quiet, workman-like presence to the team few players have: his presence as a player on the PHPA Executive Board, positive attitude, and ability to take players under his wing no doubt had a drawing influence in bringing players to the Air Capital in the wake of the Malcolm Cameron debacle.
The losses sustained in the last three-plus months have created enormous shoes for the returning corps – Sean Allen, Evan Buitenhuis, Cam Clarke, Peter Crinella, Jay Dickman, Stephen Johnson, Alex Peters, Garrett Schmitz, and Brayden Watts – to fill. Removing Buitenhuis, the group produced 174 points last season (63G, 111A) or 29.2 percent of the Thunder’s total offense.
Additionally, the announced additions to the roster – Alex Berardinelli, Billy Exell, Tyler Jeanson, and Andrew Shewfelt combined for 25 goals and 32 assists (57 points) in their last seasons played. None of the four forwards announced have more than 10 goals in a season at either the pro or collegiate levels.
As currently constructed, the Thunder roster has zero veterans on it and has yet to fill the holes in the roster left by any of the players highlighted above.
But there is good news, egg lovers…not all is lost.
The Thunder are left with some gifted young talent. Forwards like Crinella, Dickman, Johnson, and Watts have proven their usefulness not only in 5-on-5 play but have all been valuable assets on the special teams’ units. More to the point, both Dickman and Johnson were two of the best penalty killers in the league last season. Defensemen like Allen, Clarke, and Peters will patrol the blueline and continue to be a nasty, forceful presence on the back-end. Finally, the Thunder will be set in goal with Buitenhuis returning and at least one goaltending prospect coming (either Ilya Konovalov or Olivier Rodrigue) to Wichita from Bakersfield, if past precedent holds.
So, what grade do I give the Thunder for the offseason-to-date?
This is a tough call. I could see the temptation to give a failing mark, mainly because there has been so much lost from the team that last left the ice in June, and little in the way of high-impact players coming in to recoup the losses. Having spoken to Ramsay over the summer, he has mentioned recruiting has been tough this offseason; Europe has re-opened, colleges have given players an extra year of eligibility, and the ECHL added two more teams to the fold.
Still, there is reason to remain optimistic for some late-period impactful free-agent signings coming for the Thunder, in the same way the signings of Evan Weninger, Gennaro, Beauregard, and Jacob Graves were last season. All of those signings came in the final six weeks of free agency. One would think that the four open vet slots have to be appealing to those players coming down from the AHL, as does playing for the reigning ECHL Coach of the Year, and a team that played in the playoffs just a couple of months back.
Looking at the roster as constructed, there does not appear to be enough offense to compete with the other high-powered teams in the league. It is reasonable to think that the forwards may add to their point totals from last season, but a stretch to ask they carry the water offensively. The defense looks to be solid, and the goaltending will be too. We’ve seen in years past that when a team struggles to score, the pressure on the defense and goaltending to be perfect every single time becomes too great, and the house of cards comes crumbling down. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen for the Thunder this season.
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