The Central Hockey League has no defending champion.
Fort Wayne won the championship last season, then bolted for the ECHL. Even though the finals against Wichita were a mismatch, the fact that the Thunder reached the final round makes it, conceivably, the league’s team to beat.
The Thunder are rarely in that position. Wichita appeared to be the best team in the regular season for much of 2011-12, when they notched a league-best 44 wins. But that wasn’t necessarily expected after the Thunder was ousted from the postseason in the first round the year before.
Uncertainty surrounds a league that lost five teams and added one in Denver, taking the number of teams from 14 to 10. Allen, Missouri and Texas had strong offseasons, and Denver is a threat as an expansion franchise in the league’s largest market. The NHL lockout is also making higher-level players available to the Double-A CHL.
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But if the Thunder truly is the favorite going into the season, it’s a role with which they’re comfortable.
"We can be pinned as the favorite, with Fort Wayne leaving and we were in the finals," Thunder forward Dustin Donaghy said. "The way teams are looking, especially with the lockout, it’s anybody’s game now. But as far as I’m concerned, Wichita is the team to beat this year."
Balance has been the hallmark of Wichita’s scoring attack in Kevin McClelland’s two-plus seasons as coach. Last season, no player scored more than 61 points but 10 players scored at least 30. In McClelland’s first season, seven players scored between 45 and 75 points.
The balance doesn’t mean there isn’t room for scoring stars. Aaron Davis, who retired in the offseason, scored 115 points in 113 games in two seasons with Wichita. Matt Robinson, now with Alaska of the ECHL, scored 124 points the last two years and was named to the CHL All-Star team both seasons.
Most of the Thunder’s balance from last year, however, is gone. Four of the top five scorers — Davis, Robinson, Thomas Beauregard and Alex Bourret — did not return. Leading scorer Matt Summers is back, but much of his production came from him being a cog in the system rather than its most important piece.
Wichita could regain balance or even find a star among a crop of newly signed players. Neil Trimm was an All-Star when he scored 80 points for Laredo in 2010-11. Chad Painchaud has a pair of 60-point seasons in the ECHL. Returning right wing RG Flath had a playoff hat trick and averaged nearly a point last year.
Wichita’s scoring depth often finds contributions from its defensemen. In McClelland’s two seasons, seven Thunder blue-liners have scored 20 or more points, and in 2010-11 Andrew Martens and Kory Scoran combined for 88.
Fans clamored for more "stay-at-home" defenders after Wichita’s back end performed poorly in the finals against Fort Wayne, but it appears the Thunder once again has more versatile defensemen than specialized ones.
Travis Wight plays almost exclusively near his own net, but Martens, Jarred Mohr, David Inman, Kevin Young and Nathan Lutz could all aid Wichita’s offense.
Last season, the Thunder allowed 181 goals, third fewest in the CHL. The low total came from Wichita’s scoring prowess and its ability to control the physical aspects of the game, and it appears McClelland is sticking with that approach.
Never during the Thunder’s first 77 games, including the postseason, did it appear that the goalie position needed an upgrade. Then Wichita allowed 27 goals in five finals games to Fort Wayne, and McClelland opted for an overhaul.
Adam Russo was traded to Arizona and Bryan Hogan, a rookie who at times outperformed Russo after he was acquired in a midseason trade, was allowed to leave. The Thunder will replace them with two of three men: Kamil Jarina, Torrie Jung and Kevin Regan.
Jarina is a 36-year-old native of the Czech Republic who has never played in the United States. Jung, 23, played for Laredo last season where he posted solid numbers for a subpar team. The 28-year-old Regan has spent the last two seasons in Italy.
"Anytime there’s more than one goalie out on the ice (in practice), there’s that healthy, competitive atmosphere," Jung said. "Ultimately it’s only going to make us better. Fighting for a spot is going to bring out the best in us."