If one player embodies the Thunder’s hockey season, and what coach Malcolm Cameron hopes they can become, it’s Alexis Loiseau.
The second-year forward scored 14 goals in 18 games with the Thunder, a vast improvement from a rookie season in which he tallied 14 goals in 54 games.
Loiseau also left the team, like many other players Cameron believed he would have for most or all of his first season.
The departures have left the Thunder with 10 rookies who have endured a nine-game losing streak but from whom Cameron is counting on improvement with experience.
The Thunder (15-26-3-1) hosts Rapid City on Wednesday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
“We’ve had to replace so many guys in the lineup, and some of these guys are relatively new,” Cameron said. “They’re feeling their way and finding out what they can do. The one advantage that I have right now was that I’ve got good assets to come back for a second year.
“There were no young players (at the start of the season) to bring back. … There’s a lot of good-quality young kids that will be that much better next year. A lot of players in our league, they really peak at the end of the year as first-year players, then they’re dynamite in the second year.”
Loiseau left last month to play overseas, but he previously was called up from the Thunder, the Ottawa Senators’ second-level affiliate, to Triple-A Binghamton of the American Hockey League.
Binghamton has grabbed several of the Thunder’s top players, some of whom were contracted to Ottawa. But typically those promotions are short-lived and sporadic and teams don’t spend months without their best players.
Chris Rumble, Jack Rodewald and Alex Krushelnyski were called up to Binghamton early and haven’t returned. Players such as Gabriel Gagne and goalie Scott Greenham have gone back and forth but have most often been in Triple-A.
Binghamton added Thunder players Jamie Doornbosch and Ryan Rupert last week.
“Some of our first-year players are having to play a lot more minutes than we expected them to have to,” Cameron said. “Key situations that maybe they’re not ready for or we didn’t expect them to play in.
They’re going to get better because of it, but there’s that growing pains where we see a mental mistake here or a mental mistake there.”
The nine-game losing streak has highlighted the learning curve, even though it followed an encouraging weekend. The Thunder beat Allen, four-time defending league champions, 5-1 and 4-2 and seemed to be finally meshing after a host of in-season transactions.
Wichita has never regained that momentum. In uptempo games, the Thunder’s defense has proved lacking, and the team has struggled to break through offensively in the same games as opponents.
“With young players in the lineup, sometimes they don’t know how to pace themselves, especially when they’re tired,” Cameron said. “It’s hard to do sometimes. …Guys are learning what they can do. They’ll learn and become mentally tougher with the puck.”
Rapid City at Thunder
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
- Where: Intrust Bank Arena
- Records: Rapid City 15-25-8-0, Thunder 15-26-3-1
- Broadcast: wichitathunder.com