Finalists for Central Hockey League MVP were announced this week and no Thunder player was nominated, even though Wichita has the league’s most productive offense.
Wichita relies on balance, meaning players sometimes have to forgo individual recognition in favor of team success. Such sacrifices have been made throughout coach Kevin McClelland’s three-year stint, with little variation in results.
In fact, this year’s offense is almost a carbon copy of last season’s despite significant turnover that included at least the temporary loss of four of the top five scorers.
When the Thunder reached the CHL finals last season after posting the best regular-season record, it averaged exactly 3.5 goals; this year, Wichita is averaging slightly above 3.49. Over the course of the season, it has been established that any concerns over losing Alex Bourret, Thomas Beauregard and Aaron Davis were unwarranted.
“We’ve brought in guys that were quite capable of putting up the numbers that the guys did last year,” McClelland said. “You’re going to see that every year, especially at this level. There are always new guys coming in and other guys getting new opportunities elsewhere and leaving this place.”
It’s difficult to differentiate with so little separating the teams, but Wichita’s offense this year may be better than last season’s, at least at the top. With nine games to play, the Thunder’s top seven scorers have combined for 360 points, five more points than the top seven reached last season.
Neil Trimm, with 62 points, has bested Matt Summers’ team-leading 61, and Summers is on his way to establishing another career high if he manages five more points. RG Flath has matched Summers so far with 57 points, and Matt Robinson has returned to make the Thunder attack that much more dangerous.
Robinson, who scored 58 points in 2011-12, started the year in the ECHL but returned midseason and has scored 21 points in 21 games. Wichita’s offense is deep enough to withstand injuries to forwards Todd Griffith and Greger Hanson, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.
“You want to have two solid lines that on a nightly basis can score,” McClelland said. “When one line isn’t working, you can count on another line. There have been a few nights we have been dry, but I think with the offense we’ve got, and our defense has tightened up a lot, we lead almost every category in stats.”
McClelland’s insistence on balance can make it appear as if he finds similarly skilled players to replace departed talent. That can occasionally be the case, but more often players flourish in new roles.
Summers was Wichita’s leading scorer last year despite not being a primary option. This year he has been more relied-upon and, in turn, just as reliable.
Flath is another example. He’s not as physically gifted as Bourret, a former first-round pick by the NHL, but he has picked up in a lot of areas lost when Bourret wasn’t re-signed after last season. Flath is having his best scoring season but has maintained and even exceeded past aggressiveness — he’s often the most physical player on the ice.
McClelland can rely on improvement when players see their roles enhanced because it has happened often in the past.
“(Flath) is a guy, the last couple years, has found his niche here in Wichita,” McClelland said. “He was a third-line guy in a checking role, and he’s excelled playing on the top two lines. He’s done a heck of a job but he hasn’t lost any of his defensive awareness, he still plays that real strong.”