Paterson tasked with helping Gulls get back to winning

Photo: Mike Zitek

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

From the development side, the San Diego Gulls have a track record of success since joining the AHL in 2015.

A long list of player including Lukas Dostal, Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras, John Gibson, Brandon Montour, Isac Lundestrom, Max Jones, Josh Mahura, Sam Steel and Shea Theodore have come through San Diego before becoming NHL contributors in Anaheim and elsewhere.

From this season’s Gulls roster, rookie defenseman Olen Zellweger more than matched expectations, earning a trip to the AHL All-Star Classic and playing 26 games with Anaheim. Forward Nathan Gaucher, the 22nd overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, broke into the pro ranks and played all 72 games for San Diego this season. Nikita Nesterenko, a rookie out of Boston College, put up 37 points in 70 games for the Gulls and skated in three NHL contests as well.

The AHL standings, however, have been a struggle of late. The Gulls finished seventh in the Pacific Division in 2021-22 and were swept in a best-of-three first-round playoff series. They finished last overall in 2022-23, and were 28th this season with a record of 26-35-10-1 (63 points). Matt McIlvane served as the team’s fourth head coach in as many seasons.

As Anaheim general manager Pat Verbeek maps out plans for the future, there is an organizational aim to get Ducks prospect critical Calder Cup Playoff experience next spring. The Gulls made the postseason three times in their first four seasons, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019. Incoming San Diego GM Rick Paterson is aiming to bring those winning days back.

There isn’t much that the 66-year-old Paterson hasn’t done in hockey at this point. He played 430 NHL games as a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks. He has been a director of pro scouting, a director of player personnel, a pro scout, and has been an assistant coach and head coach in the NHL. Along the way he has won the Stanley Cup four times with the Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Anaheim organizations.

“I really feel we need to win more games,” Paterson said, “and it’ll help the atmosphere and help the players develop. It’s just a lot more fun to come to the rink when your team has a chance to win hockey games and hopefully get to the playoffs and maybe go deep.”

Come next season, Paterson will be in San Diego on a daily basis. He also may have some scouting work and keeping tabs on the rest of the Pacific Division. But his main focus will be the “day-to-day workings of the San Diego Gulls,” he said.

As Verbeek continues to a top-to-bottom reshaping of the Anaheim organization, Paterson’s appointment on May 13 is another deliberate step. Verbeek had management, scouting and player personnel roles during successful eras for two organizations – Detroit and Tampa Bay – and saw the value of establishing a competitive AHL affiliate that ingrains key habits before a player ever steps into the NHL lineup.

“The first thing is that Pat leads by example,” Paterson said. “He works really, really hard, and in my opinion I don’t think anybody who works for him has any choice but to work hard. That work ethic has certainly been taken to heart, and everybody does go out and work hard.”

Paterson points to the Florida Panthers, a Stanley Cup finalist last year and a team back in the Eastern Conference Final this season, as a blueprint for what the Ducks are trying to establish in both Anaheim and San Diego. The current Florida management staff has also established a strong affiliation with Charlotte.

“They don’t really care, I don’t think, who scores, but they are a close-knit group. They work for each other, and we want to add that character and be a difficult team at both levels to play against,” Paterson said.

To that end, Paterson expects the Ducks to be aggressive in pursuing help in San Diego when free agency opens July 1. Along with the fifth-ranked prospect pool in the NHL according to The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler, the Ducks also have nine picks at the upcoming NHL Draft in June, including the third and 29th overall selections. Building a sustained winning culture in San Diego will be a key part of the long-term rebuilding plan.

“The first thing is that they have to be good people,” Paterson said of potential Gulls veterans. “We need leadership there with all of the kids. We want guys who will be leaders and teach young kids how to become pros both on and off the ice.”

Paterson can make a solid sales pitch: There is young talent to bring along in San Diego. The Gulls enjoy strong support, averaging 7,248 fans per game this season. If a player is recalled to the Ducks, it’s just a short trip north to Anaheim. And of course there is the sun, the warm weather and the big-market city.

The Ducks are looking for winners.

“I really think that winning helps development,” Paterson continued. “A winning culture. That’s how Pat’s trying to draft, [finding] people who are winners or competitive. I think that if you surround these guys with the right group who have won and come from a winning environment, you can help expedite their development by winning.

“I’m surrounded by really great people who are going to help us move forward.”