Coming off their first playoff appearance in five seasons and extending their NHL affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers, the Wichita Thunder are set to open the ECHL season this weekend with back-to-back home games Friday and Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Thunder will play the Idaho Steelheads in the season opener at 7 p.m. Friday, then will play the Allen Americans at 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available at Select-A-Seat.com.
Here are five things fans should know about the Thunder for the 2018-19 season:
1. They return a lot from last year’s winning team
The Thunder return their leading point scorer, Ralph Cuddemi (64 points) on top of goal-scoring threats in Lane Bauer, Dyson Stevenson, and Ryan Van Stralen. Jeremy Beaudry and Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin are back on defense.
In total, Wichita has 11 players returning from last season.
“It makes us better already because we have guys who know the system, the structure, the style of play,” Thunder coach Malcolm Cameron said. “They’ve got great chemistry with their teammates and they’ve done a great job making everyone feel comfortable early on.”
Cuddemi said it was a no-brainer for him to re-sign with the organization.
“Once I knew that they were bringing back most of our core from last season, I knew it was going to be good for us,” Cuddemi said. “We have a lot of players with experience that know how to play at this level. We got close last year, but now with all of those guys back I think we’re going to take it to the next level.”
2. They believe they can win the Kelly Cup
Wichita ended its five-year playoff drought last season, finishing 34-30 then taking the eventual champions, Colorado Eagles, to a sixth game and leading in each game before ultimately bowing out in the first round of the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Entering his third season, Cameron said that was just the beginning.
“We have a great foundation back and those guys that are back want to take it a step further this year,” Cameron said. “They all feel like we were close to knocking off Colorado, we just couldn’t close some of those games out. Now that we have a taste, we want to take it further.”
Forward Greg Chase said the Thunder’s playoff berth last season can be “like a snowball effect” this season.
“We just have to keep that rolling into this season and bring the new guys in,” Chase said. “We’ve got a lot of toughness, a lot of skill, two good goalies, and a lot of good d-men. We’re going to be a tough team to play against this year.”
Wichita last won a conference championship in 2011-12.
3. They have a lot of exciting, young pieces
Cameron made it clear he wants to stock Wichita’s roster full of prospects who can move on to the American Hockey League and ultimately the NHL.
The Thunder have 10 rookies on the roster, including 19-year-old goaltender Stuart Skinner, 20-year-old goaltender Dylan Wells, and 24-year-old forward Colin Larkin, all of whom are on Edmonton Oilers contracts.
“I want this to be a team with guys coming here to move on to the next level,” Cameron said. “We don’t want to be a destination team for guys that are just happy to cash a paycheck and play hockey. We want guys that are motivated to move up.”
Two more exciting prospects for the Thunder are a pair of 21-year-olds in Jakob Stukel, a forward who scored 37 goals in junior league last season, and Keoni Texeira, a defenseman who reached the final team camp with the Vegas Golden Knights this summer.
“This has been a great team to start with my first year pro,” Texeira said. “I just am trying to soak it all in and let my work ethic and determination lead the way. The pro level is a big jump, but I’ve learned that the biggest thing is just acting like a pro every single day at the rink and pushing yourself and your teammates every day in practice.”
4. They made key offseason signings
Bringing back Cuddemi, the team’s leading goal scorer, was a main priority for the team this summer, but that wasn’t the only move the Thunder made.
They also brought back two other critical parts from last season: a goal-scorer in 23-year-old forward Greg Chase and Jeremy Beaudry, who scored 37 points last season and was among the league leaders for defensemen.
On top of that, Cameron added two key veterans to the team: Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who will serve as the team’s player-assistant coach, and Tyler Elbrecht, who was a captain last season for the Kansas City Mavericks.
“You can already see the depth that we have right now,” Elbrecht said. “A lot of teams don’t have that type of internal competition. We’re here to push each other every single day on the ice. That’s when you get better when you’re not in that comfortable state and you’re competing every single day.
“I’m six years in now and I want to win a championship. I feel like we have what it takes here to do it.”
5. They want to play a fan-friendly style
Part of the reason why Cuddemi said he re-signed with the Thunder is because Cameron allows his players to flourish in his system.
Cameron’s style has also made an impression on forward Dyson Stevenson, who played against Wichita with the Allen Americans before coming to the Thunder.
“This whole organization has come a long ways,” Stevenson said. “I remember playing Wichita before I came here and they were always tough, but (former coach Kevin) McClelland didn’t bring in a lot of skill guys. I think Malcolm has done a good job bringing in a good mix of those guys and that’s what it takes to win.”
Chase also appreciated the system created by Cameron that doesn’t restrict players to specific roles.
“The best part is that you get to showcase your skills on a team that is winning at the same time,” Chase said. “I got a lot of opportunities thanks to coach to perform and show my skills not just to Edmonton, but to any team that could call me up.”
As for what fans can expect, here’s what Cuddemi had to say.
“We’re going to be fast and we’re going to be tough,” the forward said. “With the guys that we have in the locker room, we have a little bit of everything. Fans can expect physical hockey, a fast pace, and a lot of goal-scoring this season.”