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Jeffrey Lutz’s CHL report CHL report: NHL lockout affects league’s competitive balance

  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, at 5 p.m.

Ever-changing CHL

It’s becoming more difficult to check the Central Hockey League standings and see the same thing that appeared before.

With parity created by a trimming of the league, and the NHL lockout that is making better players available to the CHL, no team has separated from the pack and no team has fallen too far behind.

Entering Tuesday, the league’s 10 teams were separated by six wins and 11 points. The only team more than two points ahead of its closest competitor is first-place Allen, which at 27 points is three ahead of the Thunder.

Six teams own between 18 and 24 points, shuffling the standings daily and creating a balance that makes it difficult for any team to enjoy long stretches of winning. Wichita recently finished a five-game winning streak that vaulted it to second place, but the Thunder is being chased by four teams at 21 points or more.

“You’re always watching other games and watching the standings,” Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. “At the end of the day, you just have to worry about what our club is doing night in and night out.”

Five teams left the CHL after last season, either to join new leagues or because of financial difficulties. The league added Denver, moving the league from 14 teams to 10.

Even with eight playoff spots and an 80-percent chance to reach the postseason, teams are playing as if their destinies are not decided. A league that appeared to be in some peril because of the higher-than-usual turnover rate now looks as healthy as ever because all the teams are viable on the ice.

“You’re going to have that at the Double-A level, where you’re going to have teams coming in and you’re going to have teams leaving,” McClelland said. “That’s out of everyone’s control, but the league this year is a real strong hockey league. There’s 10 teams, and who knows what’s going to happen down the road?”

The Thunder is no stranger to in-season improvements, and McClelland is partly known for bold roster decisions. Last season, the midseason addition of RG Flath helped the Thunder to the CHL Finals, and the late acquisition of Kevin Young late last season has shown benefits this year.

But fixing weaknesses has become less of a challenge with more players looking for work due to the trickle-down effect of the lockout.

Wichita has successfully incorporated Les Reaney and Todd Griffith into the lineup after acquiring them during the season, but one of McClelland’s strengths has been devalued since other coaches can just as easily plug their deficiencies.

“You see guys adding guys all the time,” McClelland said. “It’s not going to be like that every year, it’s just because of the lockout. I like it the other way around, where you have to be a recruiter and make sure you get the right guys in the organization. I’d rather be in a situation where you’re trying to recruit one player and there’s three other teams out there, than (having) six players out there.”

Slap shots

•  Former Thunder forward A.J. Gale, now with the Denver expansion team, is tied for the league lead in scoring with 27 points through 19 games. Gale played for Wichita in 2010-11, scoring 64 points in 62 games. Denver also recently signed another former Wichita forward, Chris Greene.

•  Wichita gets its first shot at league-leading Allen on Saturday night in Texas, between a pair of Thunder home games. Last season, Allen went 4-3 against Wichita and was the only team against whom the Thunder had a losing record.

Plus

Wichita has moved up to third in the CHL on the power play, converting 21 of 97 chances for 21.6 percent. During its five-game winning streak, the Thunder was 9 for 24 in extra-man opportunities.

Minus

The Thunder was shut out on Saturday for the second time in 19 games, matching its total from the previous 106 games.

Tap of the stick

Defenseman Kevin Young has been Wichita’s best scorer during the last two weeks. He has a team-best nine points in the last 10 games

Anniversary honor

Wichita is honoring two survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack at Friday’s game against Tulsa on the tragedy’s 71st anniversary. Paul Aschbrenner and Arthur Dunn were aboard the USS Oklahoma when it was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.

Defining digits

+14

Wichita forward R.G. Flath’s league-best plus-minus rating.

He said it

“They’re winning us hockey games, that’s for sure. (Assistant coach Jason) Duda is in charge of that and he does a great job with it.”

— McClelland on Wichita’s improving power play

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