SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Twas the night(s) before COVID-delayed-stranger-things-upside-down season, and all through the reduced-by-three-teams league, fans and players were excited but cautiously aware of the dreaded virus that had so ruined and spread like a weed.
Pre-season games were being cancelled, regular season openers, too. But with the bad sometimes comes the good and in this strange spell – that meant a special surprise of underage CHL (Canadian Hockey League) players getting their first pro-shot before their scheduled arrival.
The Pacific Division – home of our heroes; the San Diego Gulls – gained a new entry but also lost one and so begins the 2021 San Diego Gulls of Irvine season on what feels like a giant coin toss.
But seriously – gimmicks and rhyming aside. The Gulls season opener is tonight against the Bakersfield, so it is high time I put together some semblance of a season preview. I’ll start by breaking down the rest of the teams they will be facing this year.
Starting with the Gulls’ first opponent and most recent preseason match-up, the Edmonton Oilers farm club stayed put despite their Canadian neighbors pulling up stakes and moving the Stockton Heat at the last minute.
The Condors will be strong up-front once again – with Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, and Joe Gambardella rounding out the usual suspects in their forward core. They are also joined by recent and brief Gulls legend Adam Cracknell, returning from the KHL.
Based on the most recent encounter with San Diego, Ryan McLeod might be one to keep an eye on. The 21-year-old is entering his second full pro season and had 23 points in 56 games as a rookie last year.
Their blue-line appears to be made up of returning veterans (Kevin Gravel and Ryan Stanton) and cobbled together overseas signings (Theodor Lennstrom and Janis Jaks) but appearances can be deceiving and I would not write this group off.
Perhaps what hurts the Condors the most this season other than being a closed-border away from their parent club, is in net. Stuart Skinner and Dylan Wells sit on the Taxi squad, while the Oilers go with Koskinen and Grosenick in Edmonton. That leaves former Gull Angus Redmond and 20-year-old rookie Olivier Rodrigue fresh out of Q. Rodrigue has pedigree – a second round pick in 2018 and I had him on my list as a dream third-round selection but it definitely places expectations on this unlikely tandem.
To sum things up – the Condors should have been very strong this year, Philip Broberg and Raphael Lavoie should have been making their age-20 pro-debuts and without the need for a taxi squad, they would have had a very strong tandem of Skinner and Wells in net. But the pandemic has made it somewhat harder for Bakersfield, a lot of their more promising prospects have been loaned overseas and are already well into their seasons. The border issue and eventual injuries to the Oilers is going to make things that much trickier, too. I still see them being near the top of the division but not quite as high as I originally thought. Where I once saw them finishing second, I now see them fighting for the fourth and final “playoff” spot in the division.
Much like their parent club, the Eagles have done a good job of making quietly successful signings and acquiring depth pieces to pad out their roster with underrated efficiency.
Up front, they will rely on a strong third year from 2018 16th overall pick Martin Kaut, he is by default the team leading scorer leftover from the previous season’s campaign as the only returning player from their top six. Potential third-round steal Jean-Luc Foudy comes in as an 18-year old fresh from the 2020 draft, while veterans Miika Salomaki and TJ Tynan will be asked to fill the void left by the departures of Andrew Agozzino and AJ Greer. There is a sense that the Eagles might be struggling to find goals this season without any real standout established scoring threats.
On the back-end – it is again a case of missing in action. David Warsofsky (Marlies), Nicholas Meloche (Barracuda) and Mark Alt (Kings) have all moved on and it leaves a mix of returning second and third-year pros with one seasoned veteran in former Sound Tigers Captain Kyle Burroughs left to stabilize. Bowen Byram elevates this group a whole other level or two but given his play, he is likely staying up with the big club. The Eagles have always played simple, no-corner-cutting defensive hockey though – so as unspectacular as this core is – they will probably still get it done.
The goaltending position is where it gets interesting. The early-season injury with no sign of return for Pavel Francouz has meant the recall of Hunter Miska and the trickle-down effect of Adam Werner being required on the taxi squad. None of the goaltenders on the roster has seen AHL action and only one was drafted (2019 seventh-round pick Trent Miner). Parker Gahagen has the best numbers in the ECHL of the bunch but I can’t really judge who carries the Eagles net to start.
Overall – this Eagles team doesn’t look that great. They saw the departures of a lot of quality players and could not afford to cover the holes left. I can see them battling with Tucson at the bottom of the division.
Henderson Silver Knights
The new kids on the block are expected to carry a lot of the same speed and skill game that their parent club Vegas Golden Knights do. Looking over the roster, there aren’t too many left overs from the Chicago Wolves team from 2019-20. Lucas Elvenes, Jake Bischoff, Brayden Pachal, Jake Leschyshyn, Tyrell Goulbourne, and Reid Duke make up those returning. Highly touted prospect Peyton Krebs will make his pro-debut while Elvenes will be expected to lead up front and follow up his rookie campaign of 48 points in 59 games.
A deep blue line of talented puck movers is to be expected with the Vegas organization and it also features the only underage player on the roster, in 2019 second-round pick Kaeden Korczak out of the WHL. They may miss Zach Whitecloud on the power play, however.
In net, there has been a complete reshuffle. With the graduation of Oscar Dansk and the departure of Garret Sparks, the crease is being handed to a trio of unproven youngsters in Dylan Ferguson (remember him? he saw one NHL game as an emergency recall during the inaugural Vegas season), Logan Thompson, and Jiri Patera (possibly the most promising of the three but still largely untested).
Overall – the baby Knights won’t need to worry about offense and they had better hope their defense can prevent too many opportunities for their goaltenders because that is definitely where their weakness is this season. This sounds like a cop-out, but I see them battling for that fourth spot with Bakersfield, or possibly finishing third but no higher.
Still my pick to be tops in the division. Even without Troy Grosenick (grabbed by the Oilers on waivers), the Reign are just too deep. Add to that the underage players the Kings are bringing in to their already rich and maturing prospect pool, you have a perfect storm for success. Mikey Eyssimont, Aidan Dudas, and captain Brett Sutter return and are joined by 2020 second overall pick Quintin Byfield, Swedish sniper Sam Fagemo, Finnish play-maker Rasmus Kupari, not to mention Akil Thomas, and 2019 first-rounder Alex Turcotte. It’s actually not fair.
The blue line – although not their best feature – is still relatively strong. It is strange to see Tobias Bjornfot on the roster; one would think he should be with the Kings so I wouldn’t see that as necessarily set in stone but Sean Durzi, Daniel Brickley, and Cameron Gaunce are respectable defenders in their own right.
Cal Peterson rightfully has earned NHL time and Jacob Ingham will be on the taxi squad, so the Reign net will be shared by veteran JF Berube and 21-year-old Matt Villalta.
It’s hard to really pick a weakness but if you had to I guess it would be on the defense, particularly if Bjornfot gets recalled. I guess a saving grace for the rest of the division is the Kings ties to Europe are so good that a lot of their prospects are already midway through their seasons and likely aren’t coming over. Can you imagine if this roster also had recent draft picks Kasper Simontaival, Martin Chromiak, and Helge Grans?
San Diego Gulls
That brings us to our heroes. I have already written a bunch about them here so I will spare you any re-iteration. I had the Gulls pegged as third or fourth but it all depends on Trevor Zegras – and how long he stays in San Diego for. The power play is pretty good with him on it and once he goes – it will become just your average five-man unit. That said – even before seeing them in preseason action, I have had high hopes for them this year. Having Jamie Drysdale fresh from the draft playing in the AHL feels like being given a taste of your parents’ wine before you were of legal age. It’s exciting and you want it to last longer.
Up front is potentially the Gulls’ weakest point – even with Zegras. My point being, right now they have maybe nine forwards on the roster. It doesn’t bode well that they had to play defensemen Keegan Kanzig and Hunter Drew in forward roles in the final preseason game and even then only had eleven “forwards.” Jack Badini has been recalled from ECHL Tulsa and should be out of quarantine before this weekend but that only adds one more. The remaining Gulls with the Oilers were also recalled on January 31, but it is not clear when exactly we will see either of them. Max Golod was injured in action for the Oilers and Bryce Kindopp tested positive for COVID-19. Olle Eriksson Ek saw some action with the Oilers but was outplayed by Roman Durny while in Tulsa. The acquisition of Matt Lorito and the signing of Alex Dostie helps, but it feels like they might need at least one or two more bodies.
The blue-line is by far the strongest point. Right now San Diego has ten, count ’em, ten players for six roster spots. Sure Kodie Curran and Josh Mahura are likely to continue to bounce back and forth between the Ducks, the taxi squad and the Gulls, but that is still an over-abundance of defenders. It is a quality group too – a mix of veterans mentoring youngsters and third-year pros trying to take the next step. The acquisition of Trevor Carrick helps immensely as well.
It was sad to see Kevin Boyle go but this is the dawn of a new era. Lukas Dostal is likely to take the Ducks’ number one spot someday and he’ll begin that quest this season. He is likely to see the majority of the action, with Jeff Glass backing up. Eriksson Ek might get the odd spot duty, but this is Dostal’s net, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Stolarz see some time also as he bounces up and down from the taxi squad but it’s clear the Ducks would like to see Dostal get the lion’s share of the action this season.
San Jose Barracuda
You probably saw me throw a tiny bit of shade on Twitter as the Gulls walloped the Barracuda in their first preseason matchup. I did not expect San Jose to be good this year and I still don’t entirely think they will be, but I’ll tell you, they could surprise some teams.
San Jose appears to have called in all of their prospects from near and wide and deposited them with the Barracuda. Now – given the Sharks consistent regular-season successes over previous years, they don’t exactly have any Trevor Zegras of their own but, they do have some returning talent in Joachim Blichfeld and Jayden Halbgewachs joined by some seasoned pros like Rudolfs Balcers and Antti Suomela. This forwzard group can score – as the Gulls saw first hand in the second preseason game, but lacks any distinctive standout star.
Their defense is where things get interesting. Former Gulls captain Jaycob Megna leads while talented puck movers Ryan Merkley and Jacob Middleton add an offense dynamic to offset the no-nonsense edge from veterans like Chaz Reddekopp, Meloche, and Nick Desimone. Last season, the defense was possibly the Barracuda’s biggest weakness. This season, it is most definitely its strength.
Zach Sawchenko and Joseph Korenar will likely share duties and take turns on the taxi squad. Gulls fans will be familiar with Korenar, he didn’t look great in that first preseason game but he is still a very good goalie capable of stealing a game if he wishes to.
Overall – I had written the Barracuda off but now I’d say they could surprise some teams and likely put up a fight for that fourth spot. Ultimately I think they finish fifth but still much better than I originally thought.
I have to admit I let out a little audible “oh no!” as I had a glance over their roster. Not because I saw former Oilers/Condors scorer Cameron Hebig had joined them. Not because I saw the return of Michael Bunting, Lane Pederson, Blake Speers, and Tyler Steenbergen. No. Because I saw the name Kevin Roy. Like a former love now in the arms of that jerk you never liked, K-Roy, why you got to do that? Thinly veiled emotionally betrayed jokes aside, the former Gull appears to be in Tucson on a try-out and the Roadrunners appear to need him, they have twelve forwards on their roster. The exact amount needed so better than the Gulls but there isn’t exactly room for injury cover or call-ups there.
Tucson’s strength is on defense and it isn’t even close. Kyle Capobianco should probably be with the big club and Victor Soderstrom is going to cause nightmares for the rest of the Pacific. The rest of the defensive core is made up of veterans (Dysin Mayo, Cam Dineen) and newcomers but Soderstrom and Capobianco take it to a whole new level on their own.
Prosvetov has the net essentially to himself, with Adin Hill not being waiver exempt and backups likely to be ECHL signings. The 21-year-old Russian saw 27 games with the Roadrunners as a rookie and put up decent numbers.
To sum up – the Roadrunners are due for a tumble and don’t appear to have any emerging talent other than Victor Soderstrom to give them the edge, they are better than Colorado though, so I can see them finishing sixth ahead of the Eagles.
So breaking it down, here is how I see the Pacific shaping out by season’s end.
Let’s all look back at this post at season’s end and laugh at how wrong I was.