As the second-youngest head coach in the ECHL, Phil Axtell admits he's still getting the hang of this thing.
"There's no doubting that. This is my first training camp, first time putting a team together without another coach," Axtell said. "It's fun. Glad to be back on the ice, glad to see the guys here in town."
Axtell is entering his first full season as head coach after taking over in January from Terry Ruskowski. The first impressions were good as Axtell guided the Mallards to a 21-12-2 record and a playoff berth.
Impressions entering camp haven't changed as new players seem excited to join an organization that continues to trend upwards.
"Talking to Phil, it's easy to see he has a direction and a dream of where he wants to go," defenseman Kyle Bigos said. "It's easy to get behind someone like that that's very confident, and he's very vocal, gets what he wants across right away, and it's very clear. Expectations couldn't be more clear coming into camp."
Axtell's offseason was perhaps equally as impressive as his results last year. With Josh MacDonald and Sam Warning returning from the Chicago Wolves' AHL camp, the Mallards currently have 31 players, their largest camp roster in years and enough for Axtell to break the team into two groups and hold two different training sessions Monday.
It's not just the quantity of players that is striking but also the quality. The Mallards return three of their top four scorers, the first time the Mallards have had that bulk of their offense return since 2006, the last season before the two years of the AHL's Quad-City Flames.
The Mallards also return goaltender C.J. Motte, who earned all-star honors last year and is the first returning goaltender since David Brown in 2011.
"Phil is receptive to what we see out there on the ice. We're excited to have him as our head coach," Motte said. "Once Phil took over, he really talked about how this was our team. ... We had confidence in him, he had confidence in us and we just fed off each other."
Getting those types of players to return is something that Ruskowski, despite all his experience, was never able to achieve while with the Mallards.
"It just shows the respect and the trust is mutual," Axtell said. "They hear it, they see it. It means a lot to me. It means I’m doing something right."
Kyle Follmer is also returning to the Mallards, excited to reunite with Axtell. Follmer played parts of the last two seasons with Quad-City but spent most of last year with rival Fort Wayne. He noticed a difference in the Mallards between the first half under Ruskowski and the second half under Axtell.
"That first half of the year when we played them, they didn’t scare us at all. We’d come in here and say, ‘Let’s take our two points and get out of here,'" Follmer said. "What they got better at, you could see they were making smart plays. Their good players were in better spots as opposed to the first half where they were all bunched up.
"I think that’s the other thing Phil did is just simplify things for his players. When Terry was here, we had five breakouts, we had five neutral-zone regroups, three neutral-zone breakouts. Hockey is a simple game; let’s not make it more complicated than it was. I think in the beginning of the year you saw players that didn’t know what they were doing when we played against Quad to the second half where everyone knew the system and everyone played the same way."
Though he's only 31, Axtell is quickly showing he's ready for the job, and it's clear that youth is an attractive asset in a head coach. At 62, Ruskowski would have been the second-oldest coach in the league this year. The average age of ECHL coaches this year is 46, and the coaches of some of the top teams in the league — Fort Wayne, Toledo, league champion Colorado — are all under 40. Allen holds the lone exception, winning four straight titles with Steve Martinson, who turned 60 this year.
"Not to take anything away from Terry, he was just a little ... set in his ways, and he couldn’t relate to the players as much as Phil can," Follmer said. "I think Phil, through the first two days of camp, I’ve heard him ask at least 15-20 guys, ‘How was the skate? Can I do anything better? Should I speed it up more, is there too much standing around?’ Just little things like that. It’s a long season. It’s 72 games; you don’t need to wear your guys out with hour-and-a-half practices."