The 2017-18 Gulls are looking to take the next step toward a Calder Cup championship

Oct. 6, 2017

By Craig Elsten

The San Diego Gulls have proven themselves on multiple fronts over the course of their first two American Hockey League campaigns. They have proven that San Diego is a receptive hockey community, ranking among the league leaders in attendance the first two seasons. The Gulls have proven to deliver on the ice as well, finishing second in the Pacific Division and advancing to the Pacific Division Finals of the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of those seasons.

The next step? A deeper team, for a longer potential run in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“I think, since I’ve been here, this is the most depth we’ve had,” said head coach Dallas Eakins after a recent morning skate. “I think (Gulls General Manager) Bob Ferguson and (Ducks General Manager) Bob Murray have done a great job of giving us that depth.”

Keep in mind, this is a Gulls franchise that has used over 50 players per season in each of the two seasons. The first 20 players on the Opening Night roster are likely to be part of a free-flowing mix throughout the winter, with injuries at the NHL and AHL level combining with call-ups to create a controlled chaos.

Last season 18 players that appeared in a game with San Diego also appeared in a game with the Anaheim Ducks in the National Hockey League (NHL). In addition, eight Gulls players made their NHL debut with Anaheim, including Joseph Cramarossa, Ondrej Kase, Nic Kerdiles, Kalle Kossila, Jacob Larsson, Jaycob Megna, Brandon Montour, and Nick Sorensen, while four scored their first NHL goal with the Ducks (Cramarossa, Kase, Stefan Noesen, Montour).

Players at the AHL level are constantly on the move, graduating to the NHL. In essence, depth matters.

The Gulls are fortified with the arrivals of several top Ducks prospects, all of whom may be plying their trade in Anaheim sooner rather than later. To begin 2017-18, 10 Anaheim Ducks draft picks enter the fray with the Gulls, including seven in the first three rounds.

Swedish defenseman Jacob Larsson, selected by Anaheim in the first round (27th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft, previously suited up for San Diego in the 2016 playoffs and for four games with the Ducks for his NHL debut, followed by a four-game stint with the Gulls to open last season. He then finished the remainder of the season with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League, but going forward he’ll start with San Diego for his first full North American professional season. Marcus Pettersson, Anaheim’s second round selection (38th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft, joins Larsson on the blue line after he spent the past two years with Skelleftea in the SHL.

Combined with second-year returners Keaton Thompson and Andy Welinski on the back-end, and veterans Jeff Schultz and Steve Oleksy, the Swedes look to constitute the core of the Gulls defense in 2017-18.

“The two young kids, we’ve got a good group back there,” added Eakins. “Not a lot of flash, but a group that’s going to quietly go about their business and get the job done.

“We saw some qualities (with Petterson) that we hadn’t heard about yet,” said Ferguson. “He’s better offensively than we realized. There’s going to be a growth curve there as a first-year player, but we’re expecting him to be a big part of our defense.”

Up front, the Gulls return a familiar face in last year’s co-leading goal scorer, Corey Tropp, who set the club record for goals (21) along with former left wing Antoine Laganiere. Since his acquisition by Anaheim from Chicago in 2016, Tropp has posted 65 points (26G/39A) in 77 games, providing a consistent hard work ethic and net front presence.

Another first-year player for the Gulls will be Julius Nattinen, Anaheim’s second round selection (59th overall) in the 2015 NHL draft. He spent the past two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, winning the Memorial Cup with Windsor last season, but is expected to inject a lot of skill into the center position for the Gulls, enough so that Eakins was willing to break up last year’s combo of Tropp and center Kalle Kossila.

“You find that chemistry,” Eakins remarked. “Last year Tropp and Kossila had that chemistry, and I’ve chosen for now to break them up. Tropper’s a veteran guy, he has that high work ethic, and he’ll be able to teach and mentor and help (Nattinen).”

Two veterans who both made a big impact after being acquired at the March 1 trade deadline are Sam Carrick, 11 points (3G/11A) in 15 games and Spencer Abbott, 14 points (3G/11A) in 16 games. While both are offensive players, Carrick bring grit and a two-way game while Abbott is a more skilled and offensive-minded forward.

“I entertained some overseas ideas and, obviously, coming back here was No. 1 on my list,” said Abbott after arriving at Gulls training camp, “It took a while to get done but I’m happy it is, and I’m glad to be back.”

Rookie Giovanni Fiore, who could be the most intriguing goal-scoring prospect the Gulls have featured in three seasons, is coming off a 52-goal season in 61 games with Cape Breton of the QJMHL. He looked dangerous with the Ducks in preseason and looks primed to be one of the first names to be recalled. The Laval, Quebec native scored a goal in his first preseason game in San Diego, and only days later was recalled back to Anaheim the morning of their season opener at Honda Center on Oct. 5.

Two players looking to take the next step in their careers are forwards Kalle Kossila and Nic Kerdiles. Both young men earned call-ups to the Ducks in the 2016-17 season, both their NHL debuts, and both figure to be making trips up I-5 when needed this season.

For Kossila, who dazzled during his rookie season in San Diego with 48 points (14G/34A) in 65 games, the summer was about getting physically stronger while working on the finer points of his game.

“Just (working on) the small details,” Kossila noted. “Being a first-year player, you learn a lot throughout the season. I watch the veterans and try to learn some little tricks, and I’ve learned some.”

For Kerdiles, he became the first player from Orange County (born or raised) to play for the Ducks when he made his debut on Feb. 22, 2017. He earned his first NHL point (assist) in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final vs. Nashville. He gained necessary experience to take the next step and become a player ready to make the jump.

The Gulls have muscle to supplement their skill, featuring the top three leaders in penalty minutes on the same roster. Newcomer Mike Liambas collected 149 PIM in 72 games with Milwaukee, while forwards Stu Bickel (148 PIM in 26 games) and Scott Sabourin (147 PIM in 54 games) were right behind. Toss in reserve defenseman James Melindy, 229 PIM in 68 games with Wichita of the ECH), and the Gulls should be one of the toughest teams in the league.

The 2017-18 season could be a special one for Sabourin, who earned an extended look by the Ducks in preseason. Already recalled once from San Diego during the preseason, Sabourin appears to be on the radar of Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle.

“It’s awesome,” Sabourin reflected, “Any time you can go into camp and turn heads, it’s a great thing. You work hard all summer, and you look forward to getting back to camp and putting up a good showing. I did that, so I’m very pleased about it.”

As the season begins, young professionals join the core as rookie forwards Austin Ortega (Nebraska-Omaha, NCHC), Mitch Hults (Lake Superior State, WCHA) and Deven Sideroff (Kamloops, WHL). Ortega, the local talent from Escondido, Calif., is a pure finisher who tallied 23 game-winning goals in his NCAA career to tie the all-time mark. Sideroff scored 78 points (36G/42A) in 67 games with the Kamloops Blazers last year, and is ready for a breakout performance in professional hockey.

“It’s exciting for me to come in this year,” said Sideroff, “I’m just going to keep playing my game and try to stick here. I’m going to use my speed as much as I can.”

In net, look for second-year pro Kevin Boyle to handle early work for the Gulls, while veteran Reto Berra continues working as a backup for the Anaheim Ducks, subbing for the injured Ryan Miller. Berra and Boyle are likely to consume the lion’s share of starts in the cage for San Diego this season, with rookie Angus Redmond (Michigan Tech) available when one or the other is called up or injured.

Eakins saw Boyle, who earned a 10-5-4 record with one shutout, a 2.27 goals-against average .924 save percentage in 2016-17, as a key stabilizing factor for the Gulls during their midseason turnaround last year.

“Kevin had an excellent season last year,” said Eakins, “I thought he was the real catalyst to us turning our season around and going on a real few months of winning. He’s picked up where he left off. I’ll keep saying it: we’ve got good depth, and at that position as well.”

The Gulls can expect a battle from across the Pacific Division, where Texas appears improved, San Jose is the defending division champ, and rivals Ontario and Tucson are waiting for 24 hard-fought scraps during the regular season. The improvement of the Edmonton Oilers franchise could leak down to Bakersfield, where the Condors have been competitive but outside the top-four playoff positions in two seasons of action. Stockton, a team on the rise last year, could take another step forward.

Let the journey begin, as the Gulls are primed for big things this season, with the ultimate goal the Calder Cup. Is this third year the charm?