Ducks’ Prospects to Take First Pro Steps

Just like all NHL teams, the Anaheim Ducks are not entirely made up of players who are, or were once, highly-touted prospects. Ducks fans expect a lot from the new generation of players like Troy Terry, Max Jones and Sam Steel, but there are a couple of skaters, drafted around the same time, who are getting their first pro shifts without much fanfare. Brent Gates Jr. and Steven Ruggiero, both 2015 draft picks, signed amateur tryout contracts (ATOs) with the San Diego Gulls Friday and are experiencing their first tastes of pro hockey.

Brent Gates Jr. Moves from the Golden Gophers to the Golden State

The Ducks drafted Gates Jr., a forward, in the third round, 80th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. At the time, he was coming off two productive seasons with the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Green Bay Gamblers.

Gates Jr. committed to play his collegiate hockey with the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers, where he’s spent the past four seasons.

Gates Jr. excelled with the Golden Gophers. He increased his point production each successive season at Minnesota, and topped out at 31 points in 38 games as co-captain in 2018-19. During his junior campaign, he scored three game-winning goals and factored into five total.

Minnesota Golden Gophers Brent Gates Jr.
Brent Gates Jr. increased his production every season he played for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and is ready to begin his pro hockey career with the San Diego Gulls. (University of Minnesota Athletics)

Though it is common for college prospects, especially highly-touted ones, to leave their schools early and play in the NHL, the fact that Gates Jr. didn’t leave early for pro hockey is not a discouraging sign. The Ducks don’t hesitate to let young players who need more experience at a lower level develop in college hockey. 

According to Gates Jr. is an offensively talented, two-way power forward, though he isn’t projected to play a top-six role if he makes the NHL.

However, he has demonstrated strong leadership abilities as co-captain of the Golden Gophers and has the potential to be another future leader the Ducks could use once Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf retire.

Related: Kings Down Rival Ducks in Shootout

Steven Ruggiero Takes Winding Road to the Pros

The Ducks drafted Ruggiero three rounds after they drafted Gates Jr. in 2015. Since then, the defenseman from Kings Park, New York, picked 178th overall, has had a bumpy road to professional hockey.

Drafted out of the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP), Ruggiero committed to play his collegiate hockey for the Providence College Friars. That’s where things went off the rails.

Ruggiero suffered “tears” in both hips according to an interview with Flo Hockey. He left Providence and returned to the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL, where he had played before joining the USNTDP. Ruggiero described playing that season with the help of cortisone shots to help him through the pain, telling Flo Hockey that it made him “feel like superman.” Once the shots wore off, the pain returned.

Finally, following his 2016-17 USHL season, Ruggiero underwent four surgeries and heavy physical therapy on his hip. He returned to NCAA hockey with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s (WCHA) Lake Superior State Lakers in 2017-18. Ruggiero skated in 17 games that season, tallying one assist.

Steven Ruggiero, Lake Superior State University
Steven Ruggiero’s injury issues almost derailed his chances to play pro hockey. Now he’s finally getting a look in the AHL. (Mark Vasey/Lake Superior State University Athletics)

It was in his senior season that Ruggiero returned to form. In 37 games he scored five goals and added six assists from the blue line. The big-bodied defender earned WCHA defenseman of the week honors in mid-February. Once his Lakers fell to the Minnesota State Mavericks in the WCHA Semifinals, Ruggiero’s collegiate hockey career ended.

Luckily, the Gulls came calling.

Related: Ducks Prospect Max Comtois Shows Needed Leadership

Ruggiero the Big-Bodied Blueliner

Back in 2015, Hockey’s Future called Ruggiero a defensive defenseman with good skating ability and size — the Lake Superior State website lists him at a hulking 6-foot-3, weighing 225 pounds — but Hockey’s Future also referred to him as a “long-range project.” The long-range part has come to fruition and is continuing, although it’s not Ruggiero’s fault.

Luckily, the Ducks organization has a knack for drafting and developing defensemen. Between Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore and Josh Manson, there’s certainly a good track record there. Better yet, the Ducks didn’t draft all of those players in an early round like they did with Theodore, Lindholm and Fowler.

The Ducks drafted Manson in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL Draft, which was the same round as Ruggiero in 2015. Manson played three seasons in the NCAA’s Hockey East with Northeastern University. While he didn’t face the injury adversity that Ruggiero did, it goes to show a late-round draft pick who spent a lot of time in the NCAA still has potential.

It looks like the two newest Gulls are excited to take on the challenge.

There’s a lot of buzz about the big-name prospects who are finishing out the season with the Ducks and will move down to the Gulls for their playoff run. Between big names Terry, Jones and Steel, it’s easy to forget the lesser-known players who could one day prove valuable on the Ducks roster. Both Gates Jr. and Ruggiero have excelled at the collegiate level and it will be interesting to see how each player performs once they see action with the Gulls.

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