Phil Axtell's hard work has paid off.
He joined the Quad-City Mallards as a volunteer assistant two seasons ago, was promoted to interim head coach on Jan. 20, and guided the team to its most wins since 2006 and its fifth straight playoff appearance, losing the interim tag in the process.
Thursday, he was rewarded for his efforts as the Mallards announced Axtell will be the head coach through next season.
"It is a proud moment," Axtell said. "Hard work pays off and it's great to see that system works.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity."
Axtell, 30, took over from Terry Ruskowski midseason this year and went 21-12-2 with the Mallards. The Mallards were eliminated in the first round by the Fort Wayne Komets in five games last week but finished the regular season 40-28-4.
"We’re very happy with the job he did after taking over under difficult circumstances this season,” Mallards owner Jordan Melville said. “He has more than earned the opportunity to continue after leading the team to 40 wins for the first time in more than a decade and reaching the playoffs. We’re looking forward to a very exciting future for the Mallards with Phil as our coach.”
The Mallards also produced an eight-game winning streak, its longest since 2004 and scored an average of 3.5 goals per game under Axtell, up from an average of 2.9 goals under Ruskowski.
“Phil is an excellent young coach who did great work this season. His team was not only successful but also exciting to watch,” Mallards president and general manager Bob McNamara said. “With a full offseason to prepare we’re confident next season will be another strong year for Phil and the team.”
Now that Axtell knows his immediate future, he can get to work putting together next year's team. The Mallards had five 20-goal scorers, including rookie Michael Parks, who led the team with 29 goals.
Goaltenders C.J. Motte and Adam Vay also each won 20 games for the Mallards, with Motte earning an all-star selection in his second year as a professional.
"We talked about the season ending and being over for 2016-17 but in my eyes, 2017-18 started Monday afternoon after exit meetings," Axtell said. "Focus on getting back a good core of this year's team and building on that, building around that. Looking at what we needed more of this past season and evaluating our needs and making sure that we find and sign players like that."
Axtell also said he would like to create an hockey video operations internship position to deal mainly with handling video during games and putting together video of future opponents for quick turnarounds.
Earning the job for next season is a big step for Axtell, who admits to having lofty goals. Just like the players he's coaching, he has desires to end up coaching in the NHL. This is a good start down that path, and while he's here, he'll be committed to putting a successful team on the ice.
"It's another level of coaching, another year of development as a coach and as a human," he said. "We always want to be better tomorrow than we were today, better today than we were yesterday. Never quitting and always striving to be better, raising the bar, every day.
"I'm going to work hard to reach my goals and to make the best of the opportunity to put an exciting team on the ice for Mallards fans and the Mallard community."