Wichita hockey fans got their first look at the 2012-13 Thunder squad on Monday with the beginning of training camp at the Wichita Ice Center.
Coming off an appearance in the CHL Finals, the team is skating under the banner "Unfinished Business" after falling in 5 games to the Fort Wayne Komets five months ago.
That banner is inherited by an abundance of new players, as the team no longer has popular scorers Matt Robinson, Alex Bourret, Thomas Beauregard and Aaron Davis. Leading scorers Matt Summers and R.G. Flath return, but Kevin McClelland put a clear emphasis on signing new offensive talent in the offseason. That new talent will be heavily critiqued in the short amount of training time until the season opener against Quad City on October 19th.
"We want guys that don't take a long time to plug into the system and show what they're doing," McClelland said. "The window of opportunity is not long. We only get one exhibition game this year (Oct. 13) so they've got to show their stuff all week and in that exhibition game. The guys that don't won't be here."
Defensive help is needed as well with the departure of goaltender Adam Russo and captain defenseman Daniel Tetrault. McClelland and assistant coach Jason Duda both speak highly of new goalie Kevin Regan, and Kamil Jarina of Czech Republic comes in with a personal recommendation from 6-time Vezina Trophy winner Dominik Hasek.
The team also expects to benefit from the return of former CHL Defenseman of the Year Andrew Martens, who was lost to injury last year and played 25 games in the NHL's Triple-A American Hockey League.
"It's always nice to get an opportunity up there but I'm glad to be back here. It's a really good coaching staff, a really good organization, really good owners, and I'm really excited," Martens said.
With so many familiar faces gone, team leaders will emerge as training camp goes on, although Martens says the team has 20 guys who could fill such roles. Forward Dustin Donaghy is one of the more vocal, and exciting players to wear Thunder blue for a consecutive season.
"We have a solid, solid team. Yeah, we had big name guys (last year.) But that was only a couple guys. This year we have a whole variety, a whole team that is compiled of skilled guys, hard working guys. We have a lot of character in our dressing room this year," Donaghy said.
While every player will compete for a spot on the final roster, the numbers game is made more competitive by the NHL lockout as players file into the AHL in search of a paycheck and opportunities to get on the ice. As a result, AHL rosters will not be large enough keep all players currently signed to contracts. Players released from upper levels of the minor leagues will seek opportunities elsewhere, such as the Central Hockey League. The CHL is down to 10 teams from 14 last year, and every team will have an opportunity to sign players who may leave shortly thereafter once the NHL labor dispute is resolved.
"It's unbelievable. I just got a text that one of the players has been let go on the coast (ECHL) and he would be available. We just got a call from an NHL club that has three contracted players that are looking for a home. You have to be really careful because you don't know how long the lockout is going to be," McClelland said.
The reigning CHL Coach of the Year has stated his intentions to stay loyal to the guys he recruited and who have been with the team in camp, but left any future opportunity open to interpretation.
"If we can pick up a major piece and help out our club, then that would be fine, too," McClelland said.
"You can't just show up to camp and float around just because you were here last year. Guys need to show up, be in shape and ready to go," said Donaghy.
"Every league, it has an impact on. But you've just got to work hard, and make them keep you."
The Thunder host the Tulsa Oilers on Saturday night in the sole exhibition contest before opening the season the following Friday.