Preseason training camp is a time for coaches to make important decisions, but Thunder coach Kevin McClelland faced a lot of those even before camp opens on Monday.
Wichita had the rights to 11 veterans (301 or more professional games) that either retained that status or earned it after last season. With six such players allowed on Central Hockey League rosters, the Thunder faced the inevitability of losing some of its most productive and experienced players.
McClelland made most of those decisions long before the start of practice, and some were made for him by players looking for opportunities elsewhere. The Thunder ended up with five returning veterans and a newcomer, Jon Booras, from the disbanded CHL franchise in Bloomington, Ind.
That means the turnover from last year’s team that advanced to the CHL Finals before losing to Allen in seven games will be significant.
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“There’s going to be a lot of new faces,” McClelland said. “Early on we’ll see what we’ve got and probably have to tinker just like every year. …You want to be a little bit loyal, but you want the guys to commit early. It’s a positive sign that guys want to be here.
“Once you get filled up, then guys, after they’ve ventured out there and looked at all their other options, want to come back here. But you’ve got to tell them it’s too late, we had to move on.”
Wichita lost four of its top seven scorers as Neil Trimm, Kevin Young, Chad Painchaud and rookie phenom Greger Hanson all left. Those departures made it important for the Thunder, the league’s highest-scoring team in 2012-13, to find as much familiarity as possible offensively.
Mainstays RG Flath and Matt Summers are back along with power-play specialist Ian Lowe and Matt Robinson, who returned to Wichita at midseason after a stint in the ECHL and is a two-time CHL All-Star with the Thunder.
Flath and Summers each notched career-highs in points last season; Flath’s 62 points were 23 more than his previous best and Summers followed up leading the 2011-12 Thunder in scoring with 66 points while playing all 66 regular-season games.
“Those are two guys, Flath and Summers, that (became veterans),” McClelland said. “But I like those guys in my dressing room and you know what you’re going to get pretty much every night from them.”
Joining Flath and Summers at forward are two players from Bloomington, Booras and Jared Walker. Booras is probably the headliner of Wichita’s offseason. He was second in the league with 86 points in Bloomington’s final season and will be counted on to help replace the production of departed forwards Neil Trimm and Chad Painchaud.
Another former Bloomington player, Jesse Dudas, joins a group of defensemen that includes three other newcomers along with returners Jon Madden, Travis Wight and captain Andrew Martens.
Last year the Thunder signed three players from Laredo, another disbanded CHL franchise. Two of them, Trimm and goalie Torrie Jung, were key cogs in Wichita’s run to the finals. Booras and his former Bloomington teammates could have a similar effect.
“It’s worked well,” McClelland said of grabbing a folded team’s best players. “We’ve been fortunate that they want to come here and play, because every team in the league is after those guys and we ended up landing them.”
The Thunder is carrying 28 players in camp, up from McClelland’s preferred 23. That will create competition for the few spots not already decided. Another camp battle not predicated on an abundance of players is at goalie, where Jung and former ECHL player Taylor Nelson will vie for the starting spot.
“We had to make sure we had all our bases covered,” McClelland said. “It’s always tough when you get that many guys in camp. There’s not that much difference between them so you’ve got to make the right decisions. You usually go with the guy who’s got the character and the guy who really wants to be there.
“This year we’ve got a bigger camp, and hopefully somebody jumps out at us.”