After the departures of a few important players this summer, the Thunder needed to fill those voids. Even though coach Kevin McClelland’s system accommodates each player’s strengths, one hallmark of his philosophy is a high-scoring defenseman.
Wichita returned defense-exclusive players Travis Wight and Jon Madden along with its well-rounded captain, Andrew Martens, on the blue line. Kevin Young, though, went elsewhere after the Thunder couldn’t retain his rights. Somewhere, Wichita would have to find a defenseman who could provide significant scoring contributions while mixing it up physically and maintaining his defensive assignments.
The Thunder thinks it found those traits in Jesse Dudas, who was the highest-scoring defenseman in the Central Hockey League last season before he moved to the ECHL after 31 games. Had Dudas played a full season at his point-per-game pace, he would have shattered Young’s totals.
“He was on pace to be the leading scorer, as a defenseman, in the league and he’s got all the talent in the world,” McClelland said. “I know he wants to come here and have a good year here this year and hopefully open some eyes to get another opportunity … where he should be playing — up a couple levels, that’s for sure.”
Dudas’ numbers, though, were put up for Bloomington, one of two teams that didn’t reach the CHL playoffs last season. His strengths may be accentuated playing for the Thunder, but his statistics may take a slight hit as part of a more well-rounded offense.
Wichita opens its season with two games at Intrust Bank Arena, Friday night against Rapid City and Saturday against defending champion Allen, which beat the Thunder in a dramatic Game 7 to take the President’s Cup.
“I love to score,” Dudas said. “If you don’t love to score, you probably don’t score too much. When I talked to (McClelland before signing), he said I would get my points. Defense first, obviously, which you’ve got to play to win. But since I got here, there’s been nothing but good things for me.”
Dudas had an even plus-minus rating last season between two stops, meaning any defensive deficiencies were canceled out by his scoring prowess. Only last-place Tulsa allowed more goals than Bloomington, so with better and more defensive-minded players around him, Dudas’ impact will likely be more evident in the numbers.
In addition to Young’s departure, Nathan Lutz, a major physical presence, also left the Thunder. Seeing an opportunity to revamp the position, McClelland added Dudas and Michael Wilson, who has played in the Triple-A American Hockey League and who had 34 points in 57 ECHL games last year.
Having multiple scoring defensemen and a separate group of standout defensive players, McClelland can pair them accordingly and give the position more versatility than it collectively has had. The scorers will aid the power play and the best defenders will be a boon in penalty-killing efforts and in close games.
“Our ‘D’ corps back there is probably the best, essentially, the team has ever had,” Dudas said. “I’ll get my points on the power play, play steady (defense), and playing steady D will come my opportunities to jump into the rush. Obviously I’ve got to pick my spots, but defense is first and that is my position. But any chance I get, you’ll probably see me up in the play a lot.”
Seeing a lot of Dudas has been a rarity during his career. The one-time Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick has never played more than 37 games in a professional season; surgery on his femur five years ago forced a halting start to his career and has hampered him occasionally since then.
The surgery cost Dudas more than a year of action and had a psychological effect that, along with the physical fallout, Dudas said is no longer bothering him.
“Everything’s good now, so I’m all healed up,” Dudas said. “Hopefully I’ll play a full season and win a championship, that’s the goal.
“… That surgery on my femur, I was with the Philadelphia Flyers (organization) at the time, so it was kind of a big thing at the time. The surgery was done and I didn’t get on the ice for another 13 months. I was a little scared to get back on the ice, but once you get it done with and get back out there, your body heals up. That’s why they do surgeries.”
Dudas has found a level of comfort already with the Thunder. Wichita signed his Bloomington teammate and its leading scorer, Jon Booras, and Dudas has played with some of the Thunder players in the past. He is also already bonding with some of his new teammates.
“(It helps) when you know a lot of guys,” Dudas said. “I actually knew a lot of guys coming in here and I’ve been hanging out with (Wight) a lot, he’s actually the first person I met when I got into town. Good group of guys here. Everyone (welcomed me with) open arms.”