On paper, the Thunder were seemingly more than one player short of beating Fort Wayne in the CHL Finals, a series that ended in five games and with Fort Wayne outscoring Wichita 27-16.
The Thunder needed at least one more scorer and a defenseman who could keep up with the Komets playmakers who often skated past Wichita blue-liners to create good scoring chances.
Those holes suggest at least a two-player difference, but Andrew Martens may have been able to occupy both roles.
"A lot of the returning guys here kind of rag on me a little bit about how I could have made a difference and stuff like that," said Martens, who re-signed with the Thunder for the upcoming season. "Hindsight 20-20, it could have gone either way. It’s a new year and a new opportunity to write a new story."
Martens was promoted to the American Hockey League in late December, and though he returned to Wichita the following month, another callup made him unavailable for the CHL postseason.
Between promotions, Martens scored 26 points and had a plus-26 rating in 33 games. The previous season, the 31-year old Calgary native scored 54 points with 51 penalty minutes in 65 games.
A return to Wichita not only offers Martens a chance to play in a familiar and comfortable environment, but it gives the Thunder a reliable presence on a corps of defensemen that, among returners Jarred Mohr, Travis Wight and Kevin Young, could include multiple newcomers.
"I enjoy the organization here, I enjoy the coaching staff here and I want to help build on what they did last year," Martens said. "I’m excited to see the product we put on the ice this year."
Filling the gaps on Wichita’s roster might not be the only job taken by Martens this season. The Thunder will be without Daniel Tetrault, the franchise’s top-scoring defenseman and a six-year veteran of the team who provided on- and off-ice leadership.
Tetrault, last season’s captain when he wasn’t injured, moved on to Evansville of the ECHL, and Martens could be primed to take over Tetrault’s spot as a mentor to younger players and the voice of the locker room. Martens is the Thunder’s third-oldest player and oldest returner.
"It’s pretty easy to have a leadership role on a team like this when you have so many guys who can lead," Martens said. "You have 20 guys in the dressing room and you can listen to any one of those guys and they’re going to tell you something you need to hear or push you in the right direction."
The Thunder took advantage of the growth on the waiver wire, signing five former Bucks — defenseman David Inman, goalie Torrie Jung and forwards Matt Boyd, Ryan Sparling and Neil Trimm.
That’s more than half the amount of the nine returning Thunder players.
"Anytime you go into a new team and can see some familiar faces, it makes the adjustment period a little bit easier," Jung said. "At the same time, with almost any hockey team you go to, everybody’s pretty welcoming. We’ve all been doing this for a couple years, so we’re used to introducing ourselves and getting used to each other fairly quickly."
Jung said Laredo coach Serge Dube kept players in the loop regarding possible playing opportunities after the disbandment. Wichita’s Kevin McClelland isn’t the only CHL coach charged with blending players from other teams as the league was trimmed from 14 teams to 10.
The Thunder also signed two players from Rio Grande Valley, Aaron Boogaard and Jon Madden.
"It doesn’t take long to get to know (McClelland)," Jung said. "He’s really welcoming, he’s a funny guy, but at the same time he takes his hockey seriously and he expects his players to work hard. Anytime you can have a coach like that, it makes playing the game a lot more fun."
Maintaining a high level of physical play may be the Thunder’s best hope, because it might not be easy to exceed the level it reached last season.
Wichita lost two top physical presences, Justin Sawyer and Alex Bourret. The Thunder should still be plenty intimidating, though, adding an enforcer in Boogaard and bringing back frequent fighters Dustin Donaghy and Erick Lizon.
The Thunder was sixth in the league last season with 56 major penalties, but that was partly because teams weren’t eager to engage Wichita.
"Even though we have the guys than can handle their own, everybody — even our scorers, even our two-way players — can do it," Donaghy said. "I believe we have an all-around tough team, then we have the guys like Boogaard and myself that can take care of anything that is thrown our way."