By Thomas Harrington
After returning to San Diego last year, the Gulls will be looking to build on a great inaugural season as Anaheim’s primary AHL affiliate. Last year, the Gulls made it to the second round of the AHL playoffs, where they lost to Ontario in a five-game affair.
The Gulls have two veterans in net: Dustin Tokarski and Matt Hackett. The Ducks acquired Tokarski last year when they traded Max Friberg to Montreal. Unfortunately, Tokarski was injured in his second game with San Diego and missed the rest of the season. He’ll be looking to prove that he should be back in the NHL, after appearing in 23 NHL games in the previous two seasons. If he falters, Hackett is an AHL veteran who played very well for San Diego in the playoffs last year, subbing in for the injured Anton Khudobin. If either gets injured, the Ducks also have rookie Kevin Boyle, who was signed to a one-year entry-level deal over the summer. He finished up his NCAA career last year and will start the season in the ECHL. He’ll be looking to impress and make his way to the AHL sooner rather than later.
Similar to Anaheim, San Diego’s strength is on the blueline. For now, San Diego has both Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour, who I believe are Anaheim’s top two prospects. However, I do believe at least one, if not both, of them will spend a decent amount of time in Anaheim. While both are in San Diego, the Gulls will likely have one of the best defensive cores in the AHL. Even if both are in Anaheim, the Gulls still have a solid defensive group. Recently signed veterans Nate Guenin and Jeff Schultz will help out the rest of the young kids on the Gulls’ defense. Schultz is a veteran of several NHL seasons and Guenin has over 200 games of NHL experience. Jaycob Megna has been in the AHL for the last two seasons, first in Norfolk and then in San Diego. He doesn’t score much, but he brings a physical presence to the ice.
The Ducks decided to not sign Brian Cooper to an NHL contract at the conclusion of his college career but decided to keep him around on an AHL contract. Cooper will be looking to impress the team that drafted him back in 2012 as he fights for a future NHL deal. The Gulls also have Andrew O’Brien, a bottom pairing player who can also play forward if needed. San Diego will have two other players joining them after they finished up their college careers: Andy Welinski and Keaton Thompson. Neither one excels in one particular area of the game, but both are solid in all three zones and will make the safe play. Welinski is a right-handed shot and his ceiling is probably a little higher than that of Keaton. Both will be looking to be in San Diego’s top four this season. If they are good enough to do that while Theodore and/or Montour are still around, that will be a great sign for San Diego’s defense.
The Gulls are surprisingly deep at forward, as several of Anaheim’s more offensive prospects have either recently turned pro or are being left in San Diego to continue to develop. San Diego is deepest at center, as the Gulls have Michael Sgarbossa, Joseph Cramarossa, Kalle Kossila, Nic Kerdiles, Kyle MacKinnon, Antoine Laganiere, and Tyler Morley. Depending on what happens in Anaheim, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sgarbossa, Cramarossa, Kerdiles, or Kossila play for the Ducks this season. Sgarbossa is the veteran of the group, having been a major part of the Gulls last season. He was great in the preseason for the Ducks and was one the final forwards cut by the Ducks before the start of the season. Cramarossa was the final player cut from Anaheim and should be motivated to get back to Anaheim. Kossila lasted longer in Anaheim’s training camp than most expected. He’s another player in his first full professional season, as Anaheim signed him as a free agent at the conclusion of his college career. Kerdiles is currently injured but was playing great during Anaheim’s rookie camp before he took a nasty hit. Once healthy, he’ll spend time in San Diego and hopefully make his way to Anaheim shortly after that. Kerdiles, Kossila, and Laganiere can also all play wing if needed, giving San Diego some versatility in their lineup.
Julius Nattinen was originally going to be in San Diego this season, but with the reacquisition of Emerson Etem and Cramarossa being assigned to the Gulls, Nattinen has been assigned to Windsor of the OHL. He’s good enough to be in the AHL this season, but he’ll see substantially more ice time playing for Windsor than he will with the Gulls. Hopefully, the extra ice time will help him further develop this season.
While the wingers aren’t quite as impressive as the centers, San Diego still has a solid group of players on the wing. Stefan Noesen, Ondrej Kase, Kevin Roy, and Corey Tropp are the team’s top wingers. Noesen has been a bit of a disappointment since being one of the three pieces brought back in the Bobby Ryan trade, but he’s also missed nearly two full seasons to injury. Last year was his first full, healthy season and it took a while for him to get back into the swing of things. Still, he’s going to need a big season if he wants to make it back to the NHL. He was arguably San Diego’s best player in their two preseason games. If that play can carry over to the regular season, he could be in for a big season with the Gulls. Kase is a former seventh-round pick but isn’t playing like it. He figures to be a lock in the Gulls’ top six and build off a solid rookie season where he missed a decent chunk of time with injury. After finishing up four years of NCAA hockey, Roy played in only two games with the Gulls last season. He was an elite scorer in his four years of college hockey, and if you watched San Diego’s second preseason game against Ontario, you saw why. He was all over the ice and finished with a goal and two assists. However, his best play of the night didn’t lead to a goal, as he made a no-look, behind the back pass from behind the net to an open player for a great scoring chance. It was a great play, and if he continues to show those kinds of skills, he could outgrow the AHL very quickly. Tropp is the veteran of the group and has over 100 games of NHL experience. He’s also a veteran of several AHL seasons and is a very consistent scorer at that level; he had 11 points in 16 games with San Diego at the end of last season.
There is also a rookie in Anaheim who could see some time in San Diego this season as well: Nick Sorensen. Hopefully, he can stick with the Ducks through the entire season, but it’s rare for the Ducks to have a rookie in the lineup every night. Last year, both Nick Ritchie and Theodore split time between Anaheim and San Diego. That pattern will probably repeat itself this year with Sorensen and some players who are starting the season in San Diego. Also, veteran Mason Raymond is on a two-way contract and could see time in San Diego this season if some of Anaheim’s young players outperform him in the NHL.
Right now, the Gulls have a very strong roster. As long as they can stay healthy and Kerdiles returns soon, they could likely be one of the top teams in the AHL this season, especially if Theodore and Montour spend a lot of time in San Diego. They have solid, veteran goaltending, veteran players throughout the lineup to provide stability and leadership, and a number of young players who are pushing to make their marks in the AHL and make their way to the NHL. It should be another season of exciting hockey in San Diego.
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