Ten games into the season, Thunder coach Kevin McClelland might feel as if he’s tried almost everything.
Losers of six straight games following two seasons in which it advanced to the Central Hockey League finals, Wichita has already used more players this season than last, 26 to 25.
McClelland is adding offense wherever available, plucking former Thunder forwards Thomas Beauregard and Tomas Klempa off waivers from Tulsa. He’s mixed up lines and defensive pairings and last Sunday went with a group of starters that had combined for one goal all season at that point.
Nothing has worked. In fact, after Wednesday’s loss to Tulsa, a 4-0 defeat to the league’s last-place team following four consecutive one-goal losses, Wichita could be in danger of regression.
With four key players having missed most of the season with injuries – captain Andrew Martens, a defenseman, returned Wednesday – and chemistry slow to develop with drastic roster changes, McClelland believes he is most responsible for the slow start.
“This lies all on me,” McClelland said. “I take full responsibility, and I have to get the job done. I have to make those guys get out there and play hard every night. Whoever is in the lineup has to get the job done. If not, I know that’s my responsibility and I don’t have to look anywhere else.”
The Thunder is falling behind in a league that includes two undefeated teams that aren’t even in first place, Rapid City and Missouri. Those teams, along with second-place Denver, which owns three early victories over the Thunder, are looking up at 7-2-1 Allen’s 15 points.
The urgency is there, but Wichita isn’t making moves out of panic. The team started the season with several players McClelland believed weren’t ready for this level of professional hockey, and he’s weeding them out by adding players who have previous success in the league.
“I’ve been around this long enough to know that you can’t make changes just to make changes,” McClelland said. “It has to be the right decisions for the organization, and no decisions are going to be made like that, a kneejerk reaction. We’re going to tinker a little bit here and there, even like we would do if we were 10-0. We’re still going to tinker because we’re never satisfied.”
The moves so far have leaned toward adding offense – primarily because three injured players, Ian Lowe, Matt Summers and Jesse Dudas, consist of two forwards and a top-scoring defenseman – but goal prevention has been equally concerning. Defenseman Tyler Hostetter, on loan from the Philadelphia Flyers organization, recently took Martens’ spot on injured reserve.
The Thunder has allowed 33 goals, more than every team except St. Charles (34), an expansion team which also has beaten Wichita. Part of that is due to Wichita’s scoring deficiencies aiding opponents’ offenses, but the downturn in physical defense since last season, except from enforcer Garrett Gruenke, has been noticeable.
Though it speaks mostly to Wichita’s 1-6-3 record, the fact that no Thunder player has a positive plus-minus rating also means the Thunder’s stay-at-home defensemen aren’t consistently protecting their zone.
“The only way it’s going to turn around is if we gut it out and the work ethic is at a high level,” McClelland said. “One night we might get a bounce that’s going to turn the fortunes around. Right now we’re a team that’s licking our wounds here. We can’t do anything in the past, we have to move forward.”
Missouri 4, Wichita 1