Before every season, I chat with Bruce Miller, the current General Manager and former head coach of the San Diego Gull and each season, without fail, he tells me his Gulls are likely to experience a "rebuilding" year with a "young" roster.
Come December, when the Gulls are right in the thick of things as usual, I realize that modesty is a great quality and that Miller has an abundance of it.
Over the last few years, the San Diego Gulls have been to the Western States Hockey League what the Nashville Predators are to the National Hockey League; they continually find ways to reload and compete, regardless of who is in the lineup.
Prior to last season, Miller, who does everything from public address announcing to making roster moves for the Gulls, decided to step down as head coach and bring in Craig Carlyle to take over.
If the name sounds familiar, it's because Craig is the son of Randy Carlyle, the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who is probably best known for guiding the Anaheim Ducks to their first-ever Stanley Cup Championship in 2007.
Last year, Craig proved that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as he seamlessly integrated his systems with the Gulls, after coaching a couple of seasons in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
He took a team that Miller characterized as "raw" once again and had them near the top of the Western Division standings, from start to finish.
In their first year under Carlyle, the Gulls didn't take down perennial powers or go on long winning streaks but they took care of business where they had to, beating up against their opponents below them in the standings.
It's not that they weren't able to hold their own against the Fresno's and El Paso's of the WSHL but they were nearly flawless against the teams they were "supposed" to beat.
After a predictably solid first half of the season, the Gulls seemed to tire or possibly get a bit complacent down the stretch, as they had the second spot in the division essentially locked up by the holiday break.
The Gulls' second half struggles included three consecutive losses to the third-place Valencia Flyers, whom the Gulls had previously defeated seven straight times dating back to the previous season
Despite the slide, the Gulls finished one point ahead of the Flyers and were set to host Valencia in their first-ever home playoff series, the following weekend.
After splitting the first two games of the series, the Gulls took a 1-0 lead into the third period in the decisive third game, thanks to a penalty shot goal by forward Tomas Busek.
The Flyers came on strong late, just as they had to conclude the regular season and wound up scoring three unanswered goals to win the game and knock the Gulls out of the playoffs.
Despite losing in a series that could have gone either way, Carlyle is excited to keep the momentum going and hopes to continue to keep the Gulls in the same breath as the league's elite.
Heading into the 2012-2013 season, he has lost some players that have been with the team for a number of years but feels he has a great mix of new faces and returners that are dedicated to playing hockey as a team and hungry to start another competitive run.
Players Moving Up:
Two Gulls from last year's squad have already signed on to play professionally this upcoming season, while another is currently trying to make the cut.
Russian-forward Arseny Stoyakin, who led the league in rookie scoring, returns home to play in the MHL (a feeder league to the Kontinental Hockey League) and defenseman Ludwig Carlson is playing semi-professional hockey in his native country of Sweden.
Long-time captain and the best all-around player I've ever seen in the WSHL, hulking defenseman Weston Cydell, is currently trying out with the Ontario Reign of the East Coast Hockey League.
Three more Gulls are also continuing their hockey careers but have chosen the collegiate route.
Czech forward Tomas Busek is currently playing at Monroe Community College in New York, which has been known to move many of its players on to Division III NCAA hockey. Nick Lynch and Joshua Albright are both off to the Grand Canyon State to play ACHA club hockey. Lynch is in Flagstaff, where he'll be suiting-up for Northern Arizona University and Albright is a Sun Devil at Arizona State University.
Although the Gulls lose their top-five scorers from the 2011-2012 season, Carlyle is very high on the returning group of forwards he has coming back.
The two undisputed leaders and already anointed co-captains are Zen Hamil and Tyler Giovannetti.
Hamil is a kid that burst onto the scene last year, after returning from open-heart surgery the season before.
I have to admit, I barely noticed him during the 2009-2010 season (I'm sure his heart problems had something to do with it) but I was amazed with what he did last year at 100%
He's a good skater with a heck of a shot that seems to always be lurking in the scoring areas. He is skilled enough to play with guys like Stoyakin on the top line but gritty and tough enough to play against the opposition's top line.
As if he didn't prove his toughness with a quick recovery from a surgery that would end most careers, the kid is also one of the best fist-throwers in the league. If you're wondering where he gets it from, his father Marshall is a former professional mixed martial artist who doubles as the Gulls' strength and conditioning coach.
Giovannetti began last season in the North American Hockey League, before eventually being cut and sent down to the Gulls. He took it in stride however and put together a solid, yet unspectacular season. He has much more offense than he demonstrated in 2010-2011 and Carlyle believes he will make a big jump this fall.
Eric Baldwin returns for his third year with the team and his play should warrant top-six minutes. He's a speedster, much like his brother Chuck, who played a couple of seasons in the NAHL. He doesn't have his brothers' scoring touch but again, Carlyle feels he will figure all that out this year with an increased role.
Also returning are role players Craig Jahrig and Mark Birchall, both of whom have vastly improved over the summer, according to Carlyle and will be relied upon more heavily for offense.
Anthony Mata also returns to San Diego, after last playing under Miller with the Gulls during the 2009-2010 season.
Carlyle has also used his contacts to bring in a couple of highly skilled new players to his team, including Tyler Gmerek who put up 21 points last season in the league where Carlyle used to coach.
He's also recruited overseas; bringing in Swiss forward Niko Losch, who he feels will play a similar role to that of Stoyakin's last year.
There has been a ton of turnover in the group but if the Gulls do what they always do, players will move up and accept larger roles and new kids will step in as if they'd always been there.
For the first time in five seasons, big number 91 will not be patrolling the San Diego blueline, as Weston Cydell has aged out of junior hockey. Carlyle knows he can't replace him, mainly because there are very few defenseman available that are above average in nearly every measurable category.
Although he can't replace him with a single player, Carlyle hopes a number of defenseman he has brought in can join Will Parker, the lone returner and make up for the 40-50 points Cydell puts up annually.
Parker will be one of the key cogs in the defensive reloading for the Gulls, as he showed great growth in his rookie season.
He collected just a point in 21 games played but blossomed from a 7-8 defenseman to a 3-4 by years end.
Dennis Andersson is another import out of Sweden that the Gulls have brought in and although he's not as big or physical as Cydell, Carlyle hopes he can replicate some of his offense.
Czech-native David Mulecek also makes the move to North American hockey but is more of a stay-at-home defenseman who is very responsible in his own end.
Carlyle has also brought back one of his former players from New York, signing the offensive-minded Matthew Majchrzak. He's a guy that will see time in all situations and although he's known for his puck rushing abilities, Carlyle described him as one of the best players he's seen at stepping up and laying huge hits at the blueline.
It will be interesting to see how this group molds together, as the Gulls teams of old have had a core of defensemen that have played together for years but the talent is certainly there.
There will be no rebuilding, retooling or reloading in the San Diego crease this year, as Carlyle was ecstatic to tell me that both of his top guys from last season have returned.
Prior to last season, goaltending had plagued the Gulls for years and at one point, the team went through six netminders in just one season.
That all changed last year however, as Vermont-native Brian Walters proved to be one of the top goaltenders in the entire league and his backup, or the "1B" as Carlyle referred to him as, Reed Kinsey, would probably start for a number of other WSHL teams.
Walters is a big goaltender who relies on his size and fundamentals to make saves, while Kinsey is a feisty little guy who is very aggressive and athletic.
Both can absolutely steal a game for the team and should once again be one of the best tandems in the league.
Carlyle loves the new "California" division, as he called it and feels it's great for rekindling old rivalries and creating new ones. He likes the fact that many of the players in the division have played against or even with each other in youth hockey and believes it will thicken the plot that much more.
The Gulls will also keep a little battle going with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, as well as the Arizona Redhawks in their non-divisional schedule. They'll also see the Wichita Jr. Thunder and Southern Oregon Spartans for the first time in franchise history.
The numbers and faces may change in San Diego this season but don't sleep on the Gulls, not even for a second, as they always find a way to compete.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League