By Thomas Harrington
Saturday night, the San Diego Gulls’ season came to an end at the hands of the Ontario Reign. It was a close fought 2-1 game, but in the end, the Gulls were unable to come out on top against the defending Calder Cup Champions and the best team in the west during the regular season. Going forward, the Reign will likely be the favorites in the final two rounds, assuming they advance that far. Chris Wagner scored the only goal for the Gulls in the game. Despite losing in five games, the Gulls were in every game, as two of the losses were in overtime, one loss was by one goal, and the other loss was by two, but that included an empty net goal against. The final game was arguably San Diego’s worst of the series, as they just looked tired on the ice and Ontario dominated for much of the contest. Other than a terrible giveaway that led to the first goal against, Matt Hackett had another strong outing in net for San Diego. Despite the giveaway, he was arguably San Diego’s MVP of the second round.
Maybe if San Diego had been healthier, things could have gone differently. Anton Khudobin missed the entire series, as did Nic Kerdiles. Michael Sgarbossa only played in the final game and was clearly not 100%. Brandon Montour played in every game, but after a nasty collision with Khudobin in game four of the first round, he was definitely playing banged up.
Positives Moving Forward
Despite the loss, there are a lot of positives for Anaheim and San Diego going forward. Most of their top prospects in the AHL played well and showed they are moving in the right direction. Also, the experience that these players got in the playoffs, some with both teams, can go in a long way in their development. Nick Ritchie led the team in goals with five, tied for second in the AHL in scoring at the time of San Diego’s elimination. He’s not a lock for the Ducks next year, but he’ll definitely get a long look in training camp. Despite missing time in the first round because he was playing with the Ducks, Shea Theodore finished third on the team in scoring with six points in seven games.
Of all of San Diego’s regulars, Theodore has the best chance to win a full time spot in Anaheim next year. Stefan Noesen, Montour, and Sgarbossa all finished with five points. Expect Montour to make his NHL debut next season and be used as Theodore was this season. Given Anaheim’s depth at center, Sgarbossa will have a hard time cracking Anaheim’s roster, but depending on how things change this summer, he could have a shot on the Ducks’ fourth line. Noesen finally had a mostly healthy season, but given his offensive capabilities, it wasn’t a great one for him. Still, he has one of the better shots in the Ducks’ system, and a strong season in San Diego next season should lead to more chances in Anaheim. Ondrej Kase and Wagner finished with four points each. Kase is a former seventh round pick who missed most of the season with injury. Hopefully he can stay healthy next season and make his mark in the AHL. After a season that saw him bounce between Anaheim, Colorado, and San Diego, Wagner is now on a one-way contract and he should be in Anaheim on a full time basis.
The Ducks also had a number of prospects join San Diego at the end of their season, and most got at least a game or two. Combining regular season and playoff games, Kalle Kossila, Andrew Welinski, and Brian Cooper played the most of the players who signed ATOs, 13 games total. Kossila appearing in seven playoff games and scoring two goals, both against Ontario. He played in six regular season games and scored two goals and four points. Welinski played in eight playoff games and picked up two assists. He played in five regular season games and had one assist. Cooper played in eight playoff games and had one assist, while appearing in five regular season games and picking up an assist there. Former first round pick Jacob Larsson played in only one playoff game and went scoreless. With Theodore most likely Anaheim bound next year, expect him and Welinski to fill that void. Kevin Roy didn’t play in any playoff games and went scoreless in two regular season games. After being one of the better players in the NCAA for the last four years, expect Roy to get some time in San Diego’s top six next season.
Finally, there are the veteran players who played for the Gulls. Every successful AHL team needs them. Just look at Ontario, they had former NHL goalie Peter Budaj in net and he was the top goalie in the AHL this season. For the Gulls, Chris Mueller was arguably their most consistent forward all season long. He led the team in goals and was tied for the lead in points during the regular season, and led the team in scoring with 11 points in 9 games in the playoffs. He’s a free agent this summer and hopefully one that will be brought back for next season. Corey Tropp was a deadline acquisition who played well to close out the season but only had two points in eight playoff games. He’s an RFA, so it won’t shock me if he comes back next season. The Gulls had a number of veterans on the blue line, most notably Shane O’Brien, Joe Piskula, and Stu Bickel. Given the amount of youth who could be on the blue line in San Diego next season, it’s unclear how many of these three will be brought back, but I’d bet at least one of them. Bickel saw the most time in the playoffs, appearing in six games, while Piskula got five and O’Brien got none. Finally, the Gulls’ had two veterans in net, Hackett and Khudobin. Khudobin was one of San Diego’s best players down the stretch, but an injury kept him out of the second round. Unless he can find an NHL contract this summer, he’s likely bound for the KHL. Hackett had a great playoff run and is signed for another year. Expect him to be back in the Gulls’ crease next season.
Hockey’s Successful Return To San Diego
Losing in the playoffs is always difficult, but losing can be a great learning experience, especially for young players. Given the potential for the amount of turnover in Anaheim this summer, San Diego clearly will see some changes as well.
Despite the loss, the first season of AHL hockey in San Diego and California has clearly been a success from an Anaheim standpoint. Having their top prospects so close has made things much easier in terms of calling players up and giving Anaheim’s front office more of an opportunity to see how their prospects are developing. AHL hockey is here to stay and next season can’t come soon enough.
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