Ryan Hand has been a part of two surprising Thunder teams. The first was when Wichita was rebuilding under first-year coach Kevin McClelland three seasons ago. Hand returned to the Thunder this season only to see it begin crumbling down.
Outside of a core group that has helped the Thunder to three consecutive postseason appearances under McClelland, including two straight years in the Central Hockey League finals, many Wichita players share similar stories.
They came to the Thunder hoping to latch on to the latest championship chase and instead find themselves struggling to maintain early relevance in a top-heavy league. Wichitas 2-8-4 record is ninth-best in the 10-team CHL, and the Thunder is 12 points out of first place after spending most of the last two years at the top.
While there is plenty of time to climb back into contention, its a jolt to some new players to join the Thunder just in time for its first prolonged slump since the disastrous 2009-10 season when it finished 9-50-5.
Im definitely surprised by it, said Hand, a Thunder forward. With the injuries weve had to key guys early in the season, and were not getting the bounces early, its tough. But were going to battle through it, and hopefully in the next couple weeks well get a couple key guys back, a couple top-six forwards who can put the puck in the net.
Those two forwards, Ian Lowe and Matt Summers, have been practicing as they await clearance to return from 30-day injured reserve. Those and other injuries have derailed the Thunder, but it still appeared early that McClelland built depth to withstand catastrophes.
One such reinforcement was Jon Booras, the leading scorer for Bloomington last year before that CHL franchise disbanded. Boorashasnt found the goal-scoring rhythm that allowed him to rank second in the league in scoring last season, but nonetheless leads Wichita with 13 points.
Booras may have been most eager to come to Wichita after Bloomington, where he spent seven seasons in three leagues, and missed the CHL playoffs the last two years.
The biggest thing was probably being comfortable with McClelland and what he brings to the table as a coach, Booras said. Hes pretty respectable, hes pretty fair. Then, obviously (the Thunder) going to the finals the last two years was pretty big because I wanted to win one. That was a big (part of the) decision to come here.
Like Booras, defenseman Garrett Gruenke found little reversal of fortunes when he jumped to Wichita from within the CHL, though Gruenkes defection may be even more painful so far.
Gruenke came from Rapid City, a team on the cusp of contention during his two seasons there when it finished with the fourth- and sixth-best regular-season records. This year, though, while the Thunder has struggled, Rapid City is 10-1 and leading the league as it comes to Wichita for a pair of weekend games.
You never expect a team thats been doing as well as they have the past couple years to end up starting out like this, Gruenke said. But Ive had situations where a team lost the first six games of the season, then we roll off a bunch of wins. I think weve got a good core here, and a lot of good things can still happen.
That is the consensus among Wichitas other new players, that a foundation of players such as Summers, RG Flath, Matt Robinson, Travis Wight and others who have helped the Thunder to two straight finals appearances will figure it out. That McClelland, who has taken multiple teams to the finals, will find a way.
Theyve been there and done that, Booras said. It breeds amongst the guys. Weve had a lot of good talks, a lot of good meetings. Everybody is frustrated, but weve just got to stay positive that things are going to work out.
Then maybe Hand can take a circuitous route to playing a part in another construction.
The expectations were obviously a lot different, Hand said. When you go to the finals two years before, everybody is expecting to go right back there. But when you bring in so many new guys and lose so many, it is kind of like a rebuilding year. But we still have guys who are going to put the puck in the net and the guys who are going to win.
Were not clicking right now, but I know were going to come around.