The Bruce Ramsay era in Wichita kicks off this weekend, as the Thunder open their 2019-20 season at Intrust Bank Arena against the Indy Fuel at 7 p.m. Friday and against the Rapid City Rush at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Here are five things to know about the Thunder this season:
1. Steven Iacobellis, a budding star, returns
The Thunder are short on returning experience from last season’s club, but they do return arguably their best player in 26-year-old forward Steven Iacobellis.
Not only did Iacobellis lead the team with 23 goals last season, but he dished out 42 assists — the 10th-most in the ECHL. On a team trying to move up into the playoffs, having one of the top players in the league helps.
“I just try to stick with what works,” Iacobellis said of his follow up. “I like to think of myself as a good 2-way player and in all three zones on the rink. I just like to work hard and hopefully success comes with that.”
Wichita lost its other potent scorer, Ralph Cuddemi, but Ramsay believes he has filled the void with the signing of veteran Chris Crane, who he believes could be unlocked in his system and be a “potential 30-goal scorer.”
2. The Thunder want to be fast
Wichita scored 3.1 goals per game, ranking 18th in the 27-team ECHL last season.
The Thunder want to play faster, which sounds nice in theory but is a familiar refrain for every hockey team in October. Returning veteran Stefan Fournier, who will now be a player-coach, says the team speed is noticeably different compared to last year.
“The biggest thing in hockey now is how fast everyone is moving out there,” Fournier said. “I can’t really pick out any single guy that’s not a great skater. That’s the model everyone has gone towards the past couple of years. I think we have speed and size this year.”
Iacobellis believes the increase in team speed will result in an increase in goals scored.
“Speed kills,” Iacobellis said. “We’ve got some guys that can skate, that’s the big thing these days in hockey. We’re looking to use that to our advantage.”
3. Help is on the way from Finland
While the offense wasn’t great, it was far from the No. 1 problem for Wichita last season. The Thunder gave up the fifth-most goals in the ECHL.
To bolster the defense, Ramsay signed Patrik Parkkonen, a 26-year-old standout defender from Finland who has spent his whole career in Europe.
“He’s new to North America, but this guy is one heck of a player,” Ramsay said.
Parkkonen mentioned the speed of Wichita’s defense is what stands out about his teammates so far. That’s also the biggest different he says in how the game is played in North America compared to Europe.
“It’s more north-south,” Parkkonen said. “Go to the net hard. Not so much holding the puck, definitely more speed.”
Wichita’s defense will benefit from its affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers, as 26-year-old goalkeeper prospect Mitch Gillam will start the season with the Thunder. He held a .906 save percentage and earned ECHL All-Star honors last season with the Worcester Railers.
4. Ramsay has already made an impression
Ramsey’s reputation as a winner is well-known. In the span of 11 seasons as head coach, Ramsey’s teams have made it to the playoffs eight times.
That’s the type of winning the Thunder, which have missed the playoffs five of the last six years, want to get back to.
“He’s the type of guy you want to run through a wall for,” Crane said. “He is as honest as a coach as they come and is a real straight shooter. He’s what you would consider a players’ coach. He expects a lot out of his guys and expects them to be performing at a high level. If we’re able to do that and work hard for that guy, then it’s going to be a lot of fun playing for him.”
Ramsey’s past experience in the American Hockey League, where he spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach with Grand Rapids, also matters to the Thunder players. Grand Rapids won the 2017 Calder Cup with Ramsay on board.
“He’s got a very wide knowledge of hockey and he’s just a very well-respected coach,” Fournier said. “He’s prepared every day and that trickles down through the lineup, as well.”
Ramsay spoke on Wednesday about his vision for the Thunder this season.
“We’re going to have a hard-working team and we’re going to out-work the other team,” Ramsay said. “Sometimes we might not have the most skill, but in my mind work ethic always beats skill. We’re going to go out there and work hard and be that lunch-pail team that gives it every shift. The fans are going to love it.”
5. A quick start is needed
Wichita is a young and inexperienced team, so winning early would instill confidence in some of the players who might not be used to the season-long grind of the ECHL.
The schedule also affords the Thunder the opportunity for a strong start with seven of 12 games at Intrust Bank Arena to open the season. Wichita opens the season at home against Indy and Rapid City, two teams that also missed the playoffs last season.
Last year the Thunder only won five times in the first 17 games of the season.
“A strong start is always crucial,” Crane said. “The first 10 games you’ve got a lot of new guys, so with a young team it’s important. One of the reasons is confidence. You want to have that belief early in the season that you’re able to win every game no matter what situation you’re in.”
The first road swing of the season will also be a big test for a young team. The Thunder will leave on Sunday after playing Saturday, then ride 20 hours on a bus to Salt Lake City for a game Wednesday at Utah, then be on the road for another week with two games at Idaho on Oct. 18 and Oct. 19. Both teams were in the ECHL playoffs last season.
“They’re going to get to know each other well,” Ramsay said. “We’ll have some time to practice and do some sight-seeing and have some time to get together and get to know each other a little bit more.”
Crane is embracing his role as one of the team’s leaders.
“With the length of time I’ve been in the league and the experience I have preparing for games and just other little tips along the way, I think I can really help some of these guys,” Crane said. “I realize this is probably where I’m at. I’m going to be playing in the ECHL, but some of these guys have the potential to move up to the American or even the NHL. Hopefully I can be a part of that for them and help them get ready for the next level and also have some team success here along the way.”