By Cameron Struyk
The Anaheim Ducks “farm” teams: the San Diego Gulls of the AHL and the ECHL Utah Grizzlies, have both put up ridiculous win streaks. While the Ducks have dropped two of their three games since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies have won their past seven and the Gulls have gone unbeaten in eleven contests, winning five in a row themselves. At an individual level, it’s hard to ignore what the system has been producing for the Ducks all year. Brandon Montour further exemplified individual success this week after playing in the AHL’s All Star Game Monday, scoring an OT game winner against the Ontario Reign two nights ago, only to then board a plane to Tampa Bay where he tallied his first NHL goal in his very young career. Beyond the call up success that has been abundant in players like Shea Theodore, Joseph Cramarossa, Montour, Stefan Noesen, Ondrej Kase, and a handful of other others who have gotten NHL playing time this season, the AHL and ECHL teams continue to prove their purpose in player development and yet have managed to come out victorious in all of their games since their league’s All Star Breaks.
The AHL is the NHL’s top development league, many would call it the second-best league in the world and they wouldn’t be wrong in saying that considering 80% of NHL players have spent time in the AHL. The level of play and game atmosphere happening at Valley View Casino Center is not only second to none; it is also a level of hockey the city has come to realize is something they have never seen before. The Gulls winning ways have made it even better for San Diegans as they have the opportunity to see a winning team in a thrilling contest. The San Diego Gulls have won their past five contests including a three-game road sweep of the Tucson Roadrunners and a two game “home and home” sweep of the Ontario Reign. Since December 26th, the Gulls have been 12-1-1-2, that coming out of a December skid and season long seven game losing streak. The loss of Stefan Noesen was brutal for Gulls fans who had seen him 99 times in a Gulls uniform since the teams return to San Diego last year, but the loss has ultimately not slowed us down. The Gulls acquired Jhonas Enroth from Toronto in January as an exchange for a 7th round draft pick in 2018, and while the trade is rumored to be for protection in the case of the upcoming expansion draft, Enroth is showing he wants to be back in the NHL badly. Since coming to the Gulls he has been lights out, recording his second shutout last night, improving his record to 7-0-0-0 with the Gulls. With the Gulls, Enroth has posted a 0.99 GAA with a save % of 0.962, good enough to be awarded the AHL’s “Goaltender of the Month” award.
On the offensive front, it’s hard to pick out a few key producers as almost everyone is playing on top of their game. To no surprise, Corey Tropp has extended the team point lead to 36 with rookie Kevin Roy giving him a run at 30 points with a team high +/- at +22. Laganiere’s two goals last night to lift the Gulls to their first season sweep of Ontario tied him in first place of the team’s goal lead at 12 which he shares with Tropp and Montour. In addition, Laganiere has lead the team in scoring over the span of our five game win streak with 4 goals. Chris Wagner has also been playing great, especially in the three game series against Tucson where he tallied 3 goals. Jordan Samuels-Thomas has probably been our best player out of Utah this season and since being signed by the Gulls has been producing well on the ice with his physical play. Other rookies making an impact in San Diego include: Tyler Morely, Zac Larraza, Brian Cooper, Andy Welinski, Nick Sorensen, and Kalle Kossila who notched a “goal of the year” candidate on January 20th. In our recent win streak, Nate Thompson played in three games for the Gulls as a brief conditioning stint before returning to Anaheim after the All-Star Break. Nic Kerdiles also returned from a concussion Injury and scored his first goal since April of 2016 on Friday night in Ontario. Defensemen Nate Guenin also returned last night for the Gulls while Stu Bickel has been spotted at Poway Ice practicing so it is possible he returns (probable concussion on 12/6) sometime within the next month. Individual players aside, the winning result is clear for the front office in San Diego: back to back sellout crowds have brought in 25,000 fans in just their past two games alone, the team has perhaps stepped up in place of the departed NFL franchise. The Gulls (23-12-2-2) now find themselves in 3rd place of the Pacific Division, moving up from a 7th place spot they sat in earlier in the season. The Gulls have dethroned the Reign off of their first-place throne and San Jose now holds the division’s top spot. Considering we are halfway through the season, it seems doubtful that the Gulls will hand out a “C” to anyone as we have been going with three assistant captains throughout the year.
The ECHL is essentially the “AA” league to the NHL just one step below the AHL. The league proves vital in roster moves mostly for the AHL, but 600+ NHL players like Joseph Cramarossa have gotten their starts in the ECHL. Gulls players Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Brian Cooper and Zac Larraza have all spent time in Utah this season with many others spending some time in the ECHL at one point or another in their careers. Like the Gulls, the Utah Grizzlies (23-19-3-1) have also put on quite the show for their fans as they have turned things around even further on the road, an area they have really struggled in thus far. The Grizzlies also found themselves in a standings spot they really should not have been in after a nine game losing streak in November/December. The absence of their two key goalies Ryan Faragher and rookie Kevin Boyle for about a month while they were up with the Gulls allowed Troy Redmann to throw his hat in the mix in the expanding goalie depth chart in the Ducks farm system as the ECHL vet established a 7-3-2-0 record in lieu of Boyle/Faragher’s call-up. The Grizzlies are 14-3-1-0 since December 23rd and have moved into 5th place of the Mountain Division.
The Grizzlies away game woes seemingly have vanished as they have completed a three-game road sweep of the Idaho Steelheads with Saturday night’s comeback OT win. There are still three more games on the Grizzlies current road trip but if they can keep the pace they have been having on offense while being backstopped by Faragher and Boyle, the Grizzlies have a shot to move into playoff position. The key player in Utah to watch (asides from the developing Kevin Boyle) is 22-year-old ECHL All Star Erik Bradford, who the Grizzlies acquired in a trade with Toledo early in the season. Thus far Bradford leads the team in points with 41 (11 Goals, 30 assists) in just 33 games in Utah (being the only player in the entirety of the Ducks organization averaging over a point a game at 1.13 PPG). Rookie Ralph Cuddemi is also someone to watch as he leads the team in power play goals with 7 while second on the team in points with 36. Cuddemi scored twice in last night’s come from behind win in OT. Jon Puskar has also been hot lately, tallying a hat trick on January 25th for the Grizz. Austen Brassard is also a key player to watch as he has also spent a fair amount of time with the Gulls this season and could see another call up pending injury/moves. 25-year-old defenseman Tim Daly has been a force defensively for the Grizz making a name for himself in Utah, leading the team with a +/- +22 (second best is a +6). The Grizzlies results have also proven clear to fans in Salt Lake City: an ECHL season high attendance of 9,119 on January 28th.
Both the Gulls and the Grizzlies need to keep the pace in order to advance their playoff spots as only the top four teams from each division make it to the AHL’s “Calder Cup Playoff” and the ECHL’s “Kelly Cup Playoffs.” The next Gulls home game comes Sunday, February 12th as the Gulls will face the streaking Bakersfield Condors. The game will be the first of hopefully many broadcasted live on Fox 5 San Diego in a growing team partnership. Before that, the Gulls venture to Bakersfield Tuesday, San Jose Wednesday, and Ontario on Friday. The Grizzlies play the second half of their road trip in Alaska in a 3-in-3 series against the Alaska Aces Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, only to return to their home (the Maverick Center) on February 17th where they will face the Steelheads once again.
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February 6, 2017