When the Thunder went to the Central Hockey League finals in 2013, it did so with major contributions from 15 players aged 26 or older.
Those days are gone. Wichita moved this season to the ECHL, a league that is unkind to players whose skills have peaked or begun to decline. The Thunder, like the ECHL’s 27 other teams, leans toward youth and potential, especially potential that is displayed through productivity.
Thunder coach Kevin McClelland didn’t alter his recruiting strategies much this summer, before the move to the ECHL was finalized in October, but shaping the roster with players he can help mold has long been a priority.
“You always want to try to make (the roster) a little bit younger,” McClelland said. “Going into the (ECHL), that’s primarily what they are. They’ve got a lot of prospects and kids coming out of juniors and stuff like that. We definitely had to get a little younger, but recruiting earlier in the summer, it was just going after the best players.”
Last year’s Thunder team, which missed the CHL playoffs, was in some ways weighted down by its more experienced players. Forwards Matt Summers, RG Flath, Jon Booras and Matt Robinson, all 27 or older, posted numbers below their career norms.
That left McClelland and the Thunder in a bind, since replacements weren’t readily available and probably would have lacked the ability to hold the locker room together as things fell apart on the ice.
“I think the older guys are more polished,” McClelland said. “A lot of times with young guys, especially if you’re getting them fresh out of college or junior, you don’t know what kind of pro they’re going to be. Last year, and earlier this summer, once you recruited a guy you knew what you were going to get.”
Summers, Booras and Robinson each departed this offseason, along with four more players 28 or older, Flath has been on injured reserve all season, and roster spots went to players with a greater chance to move on from the Double-A ECHL. Wichita doesn’t have a skater older than 29, and eight players are 25 or younger.
“For nine years in the Central League, it was coaching one way and a group of guys,” McClelland said. “Now it’s different. But once you coach one guy, you’ve coached them all, and you’re just trying to help them get to the next level.”
The Thunder is seeing potential and productivity from players such as 23-year-old forward Danick Gauthier, who scored two goals in his Thunder debut last weekend after being assigned by Tampa Bay of the NHL.
Defensemen Dalton Reum and Dan Milan, both 22, are key cogs in Wichita’s goal prevention efforts, and Kenton Miller (23) has been solid on a line that now includes Gauthier.
“Those are guys that are really highly thought of, for these NHL clubs to be signing these guys,” McClelland said of Gauthier, Reum and goaltender Tyler Bunz, an Edmonton Oilers prospect. “There’s always something there. Getting used to the pro game might be the only thing that’s keeping them from playing (at a higher level) full-time. Getting used to the ins and outs of it and maybe getting a little consistency in their game.”
Rapid City at Thunder
When: 7:05 p.m. Friday
Where: Intrust Bank Arena
Records: Rapid City 3-3-0-1, Thunder 2-1-1-1