The priorities of the Thunder’s offseason have seemingly changed since Wichita was soundly beaten by Fort Wayne in the Central Hockey League championship series five months ago.
That series exposed a flaw in the Thunder’s defense and in its goaltending, and those were areas in which coach Kevin McClelland directed his recruiting during the summer.
But after the departures of talented forwards Aaron Davis, Thomas Beauregard, Matt Robinson and Alex Bourret, finding scoring became just as important.
The Thunder, which starts training camp Monday in preparation for its Oct. 19 season opener, returns leading scorer Matt Summers and R.G. Flath, who had a hat trick during a productive postseason. McClelland has taken steps to replace four forwards who combined for 217 points, signing proven Double-A scorers such as Ian Lowe, Neil Trimm and Chad Painchaud.
Robinson is on the Thunder’s training camp roster because of the possibility that he might be sent back to Wichita from Alaska of the ECHL if Alaska adds players due to the movement the NHL lockout is creating. Wichita’s 27-player training camp roster must be cut to 19 to start the season.
“When you lose guys like Bourret, Beauregard, Robinson and Davis, that’s a lot of offense,” McClelland said. “We brought in a lot of guys I think Wichita fans are going to be happy with.… We’re going to have to be little more by-committee this year; that Bourret line (including Flath and Beauregard) scored a lot of goals last year.”
McClelland handed the majority of the blame for the Thunder allowing 27 goals in the five-game championship series to the goaltending. Starter Adam Russo was injured during an ineffective Game 1 and rookie Bryan Hogan was overmatched.
The Thunder overhauled that position, trading Russo to Arizona and opting to let Hogan go. Wichita signed Torrie Jung, who played last season with Laredo, and inked veterans Kevin Regan and Czech Kamil Jarina.
The defenseman position could bounce back with the return of Andrew Martens, who spent much of last season in the AHL and who should also boost the Thunder’s offense.
Perhaps fortunately for the Thunder, they weren’t competing against Fort Wayne for players this summer because Fort Wayne, along with Evansville, departed the CHL for the ECHL. That made for a somewhat interesting offseason since the Thunder couldn’t track its progress against the only team with a better 2011-12 finish.
“What really fell apart, and people don’t really see the whole picture, but our goaltending didn’t hold up in the finals,” McClelland said. “…I don’t think it was so much of our defense, we just couldn’t contain (Fort Wayne) down low. We retooled the back end, brought some guys in, and we’ll try a different mix this year.”
McClelland hasn’t had to put as much effort into finding players this offseason, anyway. The NHL lockout has expanded the crop of available players, as has the reduction of the CHL from 14 teams to 10. The Thunder took advantage of the dispersal, signing seven players who played for now-defunct franchises in Laredo or Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
While new players with CHL experience and beyond will certainly help the Thunder toward its goal of a league championship, those hopes might rest on the crop of eight returning players, not including Robinson. The group includes Chris Greene, Erick Lizon, Jarred Mohr, Travis Wight and Dustin Donaghy.
“We got the guys that we wanted back,” McClelland said. “We knew the other guys were going to go somewhere else _ the Robinson thing caught us by surprise but it is what it is. We’ll move on from that situation.”
Forwards (16)—Aaron Boogaard, Matt Boyd, Dustin Donaghy, RG Flath, Chris Greene, Todd Hosmer, Erick Lizon, Ian Lowe, Don Melnyk, Adam Mueller, Chad Painchaud, Matt Robinson, Ryan Sparling, Matt Summers, Matt Tassone, Neil Trimm.
Defensemen (8)—Dave Inman, Nathan Lutz, Jon Madden, Andrew Martens, Jarred Mohr, Kyle Radke, Travis Wight, Kevin Young.
Goalies (3)—Kamil Jarina, Torrie Jung, Kevin Regan.