The Stockton Thunder were the stereotypical expansion team in 2005-06, with one of the worst records in the entire ECHL. This year, thanks in no small part to being affiliated with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, the Thunder are no longer anyone’s whipping boy and instead reside near the top of the league standings.
Play-by-play voice of the Thunder Mike Benton says the partnership with the Oilers immediately bestowed some credibility on the sophomore franchise both on and off the ice.
“Through Year 1 it was a tough go-around,” said the man on the microphone. “With only eight home wins and only eight wins period though January some folks were saying not only ‘where’s Stockton’ but ‘why is this team even here, they’re an absolute joke.’
“It’s really been a nice turnaround to see Stockton put on the map and show other teams and people who were skeptics that this team could survive and is in essence, for real,” Benton continued. “It was proven to Edmonton that this would be a good place to house prospects for a number of reasons. It’s a brand new building that seats 10,000 and that is in the American Hockey League status and also, the crowds that we draw are bigger than some crowds in the AHL.”
Indeed the Thunder are tops in the ECHL for attendance pulling in an average of 6682 fans through the first 14 home games of the schedule, the only team sustaining numbers over 6000.
The Oilers began the year with just four players in the ECHL, but have had as many as seven skating for the Thunder.
Devan Dubnyk G, (1st Round 2005)
Although they tried hard to find him a spot somewhere in the AHL this year, after training camp the Oilers sent Dubnyk to California knowing that he would get lots of starts and face a ton of rubber in the games he did play in. As it’s turned out, they were right on all accounts.
The Calgary native began the year in terrific fashion ripping off five consecutive wins and currently holds a 10-2-2-2 record. His 2.50 goals against average is third-best among league rookies and seventh overall as is his .922 save percentage.
Getting off to such a strong beginning helped make Dubnyk an early crowd favorite.
“I can’t think of anything else to say but that it’s been an absolute blessing the way Dubnyk has been stellar in net for Stockton this year,” said Benton. “There have been games where the defense helped him out but there have been games where he’s turned aside more than 45 shots. The good part about this kid besides being technically sound, he has that calm cool demeanor under pressure.”
Not surprisingly, Dubnyk has been named to the ECHL All-Star game, which is focused on prospects, being played in Idaho on Jan. 17. It’s an honor and an event that the goalie is really looking forward to.
“It’s kind of something you look for in a season,” Dubnyk admitted. “You have to let your play get you there and I’ve been lucky and people have noticed and I got invited. It’ll be exciting to get over there and have a game with all the best players in the league, I’m sure it’ll be fun so I want to go there and stop some pucks.”
It’s the second big treat this month for Dubnyk who just returned from Switzerland where he helped Team Canada earn a silver medal in the annual Spengler Cup.
The Oilers are quite pleased with the way things have developed so far for the professional rookie.
“He’s played extremely well, he’s got a lot of confidence down there and he’s one of the reasons why they’ve done so well,” said development coach Kelly Buchberger. “He’s got a lot of press since he’s been there. The guys were telling me that he was on the front page of the Sacramento paper and that’s still 40 minutes away from Stockton! He’s played well so he deserves it.”
Tyler Spurgeon C, (8th Round, 2003)
The Edmonton-born center stuck around training camp longer than expected because the Oilers were trying to find him a job in the AHL. Like with Dubnyk, that failed to materialize so Spurgeon eventually found his way to Stockton.
Spurgeon is still displaying the type of leadership ability that earned him the captaincy in his final year with the Kelowna Rockets and despite his rookie status, he’s a player that the rest of the Thunder are taking their cues from.
“There’s no question, in the games that we’ve seen him play he’s a huge leader,” Buchberger said. “He works every shift like it’s his last shift. You like to see a guy do well and he’s getting rewarded with his stats. He’s always on at for the last minute of the period or of the game, he’s on the PK and if it’s a 5-on-3 then he’s the only forward out there. He’s really come a long way and he’s got the drive where he wants to be an NHLer one day and hopefully he gets there.”
Benton agrees that the undersized middleman has been a tower of strength for the Thunder.
“Spurgeon has been a very big heart and soul guy but he’s developed a good amount of skill with the puck and that’s helped him so far with a couple of goals,” he said.
Spurgeon’s 11 goals are one shy of the team high and his 22 points is currently fourth-best on the team but just five short of the top spot. His plus-5 rating suggests a player who has adapted nicely to the next step up in his hockey career making a smooth transition.
Troy Bodie RW, (9th Round, 2003)
He might turn out to be one of the best last-round picks the Oilers ever made; right now that honor would probably go to Ladislav Benysek who managed to play 161 games in the NHL mostly with Minnesota. But the fact that a ninth round pick can still even be close to being on the radar screen three seasons after he was drafted, that’s saying something.
Every year Troy Bodie comes to training camp he astounds the scouting staff with how much he has improved since the previous year. A tall, slow-footed gangly kid when he was drafted, Bodie has matured physically into a power forward who can beat players with skill or brute force.
“I think he’s even a surprise for Chris Cichocki in Stockton,” suggested Buchberger. “I don’t think he expected him to put up the numbers and lead the team like he is right now.
“He and Tyler Spurgeon, in my eyes, are the two leaders on that team that night in and night out are contributing on the score sheet and winning games for them.”
Bodie is second on the team in scoring but trails the leader by just a single point. He has 12 goals and 12 helpers for 24 points as well as a team high plus-9 rating, all numbers which earned him a nomination to the ECHL All-Star game later this month.
Stephane Goulet RW (7th Round, 2004)
The former Moncton Wildcat sniper began the year in Grand Rapids in the AHL but after dressing for just a pair of games by the end of October, Goulet requested that the Oilers reassign him to Stockton.
“He has to play and the opportunity in Grand Rapids, although Greg Ireland the coach had told me he loved the way his work ethic was, they just had too many forwards from Detroit and it was hard to get him in on a consistent basis,” Prendergast said. “We left it up to Stephane and he’s the one that came to us and said ‘I want to play and if it means going to Stockton then I want to go down there and play.’”
The move has meant playing top two line minutes, contributing on a power play and taking on a larger role than the bit part he had with the Griffins so it’s been a positive switch.
“I don’t care if you’re a rookie or an eight-year veteran in this league, if you score 50 goals in any league, that’s going to raise some eyebrows,” Benton said quoting the Stockton coach. “I’ve been impressed with Goulet not just with his skill and yes, he’s speedy in open ice and down the rush, but he’s not afraid to go right in front of the net and go for rebounds and tip-ins as well.”
Through 26 games with the Thunder Goulet has compiled nine goals, seven assists for a total of 26 points.
Tim Sestito F, (Free Agent 2006)
The aggressive and energetic Tim Sestito has been described as a typical coach’s favorite because he rarely hurts a team when he’s on the ice and he has a knack for scoring timely and important goals.
So far this season Sestito has scored nine goals and here’s the breakdown: five of the nine were the first goals the Thunder scored in the game, two went on to be game winners, two were third-period goals that tied the score and sent the game into extra time, and Sestito also has a shootout game-winning marker as well. Truly a clutch player at this level.
Sestito was invited to Oilers camp back in 2005-06 and displayed the kind of moxie that would normally get a player signed to a contract. Unfortunately for him, the lack of a minor league affiliate of their own prevented the Oilers from inking him that year, but they did have a handshake agreement in place that saw Sestito play in Greenville with the Grrrowl.
The Oilers brought him back to camp again this past September and were able to sign him this time because of their association with Stockton where he has quickly made a lot of friends.
“He’s nasty and I say nasty because aside from his obvious skill, he scored 20 goals in Greenville, he really gets under the opponents’ skin and fights hard for the puck,” praised Benton. “From what I have heard there were coaches and general managers around the league who were asking coach Cichocki ‘Are you going to get Sestito?’ so he’s been another welcomed addition.
“He gets dirty, fights for the puck and he has an essence of speed also,” Benton continued, “His short-handed goal was I think an embodiment of how smart he is to get behind the defense and move in on goal.”
“Timmy’s got great speed and his speed really works for him,” said the former Oiler captain. “In that league, with his speed he can generate offense and he can take the puck to the net and he’s not scared to work and every shift he’s giving you everything he’s got.
“He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
Some might suggest there might in fact be some similarities between Sestito and Bucky, but Edmonton’s all-time penalty minute leader was quick with the wit in regards to that.
“He’s got a little more skill than I did!” he laughed.
Liam Reddox LW, (4th Round, 2004)
No one in the Oilers system needed a rebound year in quite the same degree as Liam Reddox but so far that just hasn’t happened for the former Peterborough standout. After two consecutive 30-goal years with the Petes, the forward only notched 18 in his final year after losing a lot of ice time to Steve Downie (PHI).
Stockton was supposed to be a destination where he could rediscover his scoring touch, but 28 games into the campaign Reddox has only found the back of the net once and has added just five assists for a disappointing six points.
One of the problems in his last year in Peterborough was a change in role on the power play where he was asked to play the point as opposed to in front of the net where he had earned the vast majority of his goals in previous years. That trend appears to be continuing again this year in Stockton for some reason.
“He doesn’t get the ice time that Bodie, Spurgeon or Sestito get, but he does play the point on the power play and second power play on the wall so his points should come,” said Buchberger. “He’s a very highly-skilled player and he had great stats in junior but his chances will come and he’ll put the puck in the net.”
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