Expectations were certainly high for this year's Quad-City Mallards.
Key players like Chris Francis, Sam Warning and Justin Kovacs — all 20-goal scorers from the season prior — were returning. Phil Axtell was back as coach, ready to build on his 21-12-2 record that guided the team to a 40-win season and a fifth straight playoff berth after things looked bleak in January.
There was even a shiny new affiliation as the team aligned itself with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, ending a four-year partnership with the Minnesota Wild.
The season has been an ultimate letdown as the team is 8-17-2, in last place in the Central Division, coming off its worst loss since 2009 and on a franchise-worst eight-game losing streak.
There are certainly several causes for the team's struggles, namely an anemic offense that is worst in the league and a porous defense that is not much better. But a big culprit for these issues might lie with the new affiliation. As an expansion team, Vegas simply doesn't yet have the deep pool of prospects the established teams have built up over the years, with just an expansion draft and one entry draft under its belt.
"We knew we were getting in on the ground floor with an expansion team and frankly knew they wouldn't have a lot of prospects in the first few years, the first year especially," Mallards owner Jordan Melville said. "I think we'll see it improving, but I think that's the reason we're maybe seeing the team not performing the way we'd like it to."
The deal with the Wild wasn't perfect. The organization wanted the Mallards to trade for Olivier Archambault, and that decision forced the team to trade away Joe Perry, its leading goal-scorer, in 2015. In 2016, goaltender Steve Michalek was called upon to be a black ace and sit in the stands for the Minnesota Wild during the playoffs instead of being sent down to help the Mallards in their first-round matchup with regular season champion Missouri.
Last year, the Wild called defenseman Alex Gudbranson up to Iowa, only to loan him to the AHL's Toronto Marlies, where he only played four games. Those were all hits to the Mallards, but not uncalled for, simply the result of being in a developmental league.
But over the years, that affiliation helped the Mallards, including last season.
The Mallards had a total of eight players come down from the Wild and play last year, several of them becoming key contributors. Brady Brassart had 43 points in 65 games, Guillaume Gelinas had 31 points in 61 and was a reliable defenseman. Adam Vay had his ups and downs as a rookie goaltender but still won 20 games for the Mallards.
All those players counted just $525 against the ECHL weekly salary cap, allowing the Mallards to bring in other players such as Michael Parks, who was the team's leading goal-scorer.
Now, the money just isn't there for many big-name players and instead the team is full of rookies learning the grind of the pro game.
"I love the relationship I have with our affiliates — it's great — but right now we have (one) contracted player," head coach Phil Axtell said. "The problem is, we were affiliated with Minnesota last year and half our lineup in the playoffs, even though we didn't win, half our lineup was at a reduced salary guys because they were NHL, AHL guys."
Brassart and Gelinas both had their deals with Iowa expire at the end of the season and could have returned to the Mallards of their own volition but decided to go elsewhere. Gelinas went to Slovakia but is currently injured with HC Banska Bystrica while Brassart chose to join the Idaho Steelheads.
His decision paid off as he totaled 23 points in 21 games and is currently up in the AHL with the Utica Comets.
Five of the players sent to the Mallards last year are still under contract with the Wild, and three have seen action with the Rapid City Rush, the new affiliate of the Wild.
The Wild have been fairly generous to the Rush as six total players have been sent down to the Rush throughout this season for a combined 106 games, including rookie Dante Salituro, who is the Rush's leading scorer.
"To get those guys back and to replace those guys that were at $525 a week, it makes things tough," head coach Phil Axtell said. "You take those five or six guys from Rapid City and you bring them back with the five or six guys we brought back and throw a couple rookies in there, you've got a whole different ball of wax. There's going to be some growing pains with a young team, but I think we'll grow quicker. I hope we learn and develop quick here."
In comparison, the Mallards have only received four players from Chicago for a combined 28 games and only one player, defenseman Kenney Morrison, is still with the team.
The Mallards have actually had substantial help from the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, with two players coming down from the Cleveland Monsters to combine for 33 games this season.
Now, having a solid NHL and AHL club to draw from doesn't automatically yield positive results, with Rapid City being the prime example. The Rush have the lowest point total in the league, but having those contracted players down in the ECHL certainly gives a team more roster flexibility.
And a strong affiliation isn't always built on the backs of contracted players. The Colorado Eagles currently have the best record in the league but have had just three players from the Colorado Avalanche pipeline sent to them this season.
Each case is different, but factor in that Axtell is a rookie head coach under pressure from a passionate fanbase and an owner who just fired the team president, and those extra bodies would certainly have been welcome.
This affiliation has had its benefits, especially in the preseason when Axtell was allowed to attend the Vegas prospect camp, gaining experience and building up contacts. This partnership could end up being a fruitful and long-lasting one, but this season it's looking more and more like if the Mallards want to turn their record around, they'll have to do it with the players already in the room.
"They don't have anyone to give us, but we knew that," Melville said. "I still think it's the right move to affiliate with the Wolves and the Knights, but I think it might be a challenging year."
This week: The Mallards host the Cincinnati Cyclones at the TaxSlayer Center Friday at 7 p.m., then host the Fort Wayne Komets Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Friday night is $2 Dogs/$2 Beer night while Saturday is Report Card Night. Parents or children who present a report card with an 'A' will receive a free ticket to the game. The Mallards are 0-4-0 against the Cyclones and 0-3-1 against the Komets this year.
Sunday, the Mallards travel to Kalamazoo to face the Wings at 2 p.m. The Mallards are 0-1-0 against the Wings this year.