There's always questions surrounding a team heading into its season opener, and it's no different for the Quad-City Mallards.
What will Phil Axtell bring in his first full season as head coach? How's the defense? Is a sixth straight playoff berth in the future?
One question the Mallards don't have to address before their opener Friday against Toledo is perhaps the biggest one — C.J. Motte is back in net to start the season.
"It's huge," Mallards head coach Phil Axtell said. "Goalie is your most important position, and to get our all-star goalie back is huge. It's one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle."
Since 2012 the Mallards always entered a new season with new faces in net. From Neil Conway to Steve Michalek, all ended up being successful for the team, but to have a known commodity in Motte — the first returning goaltender since David Brown — as well as goaltender Ivan Kulbakov from the AHL's Cleveland Monsters, gives the Mallards plenty of optimism heading into the season.
"You can definitely tell through practice, these guys are good; it's pretty hard to score on them," defenseman Alexander Kuqali said. "They make some pretty unreal saves, but it's nice when you have that behind you, you can maybe make more plays, maybe more risky, knowing they have your back."
Motte has a very even-keeled personality, perfect for the position. He was part of a Mallards team that won 40 games and had an eight-game winning streak but ultimately fell in the first round of the playoffs. The 25-year-old goaltender summed up the success pretty succinctly.
"We had a good year last year, not great," Motte said. "There's always room to improve."
He might be right, but Motte certainly set the bar high last year. He earned all-star honors after an 11-5-0 start in which he posted a 2.25 goals against average and a .931 save percentage, numbers that were second-best in the league.
Motte finished the season 20-11-2 with a 2.68 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, top 10 in both statistical categories.
Motte also made an impression in the playoffs. He posted a 3.03 goals against average and .912 save percentage, but his impact went far beyond the numbers, and it brought in some players excited for the chance to play with a high-caliber goaltender.
"He gave us fits in playoffs last year when I was in Fort Wayne," said Kyle Follmer, who is returning to the team after playing the majority of last season with the Komets. "I had heard when (Axtell and myself) were talking, I asked, 'Who are the guys you have coming back?' And he said Motte, which for me is the biggest key just because you know what a good goalie can do."
Despite all that, Motte is eager to build on that success and take it to even greater levels.
"Last year is in the past," he said. "It was something to build off, but that's all I really look at it as. There's always room to improve. If you're not improving, you're not helping your team improve."
There's no telling where Motte's season will take him.
The St. Clair, Michigan, native has been in the AHL twice during his career, including a two-game stint with Charlotte last season in which he went 1-0-0 with a 0.75 goals against average and a .976 save percentage. He also had a strong camp with the Chicago Wolves, stopping 15 shots and allowing one goal in a preseason game against the Rockford IceHogs.
Another stint in the AHL seems more likely than not, and Motte will be ready if given the shot.
"That's everyone's goal at this level. We're all trying to make it to the AHL. It is what it is," he said. "All you can do is make the most of the opportunities that are presented to you so I thought I did that in Chicago. I thought I had a good camp, and I thought I played well, and I thought the other guys looked good up there, too. At some point through my play here in Quad-City, hopefully I get another opportunity during the year at some point and I'll make the most of it."
But right now, Motte is ready to help the Mallards win. He thinks this year's team has the talent to be successful, but now the Mallards have to prove it.
"We've got some big guys that can throw some bodies, we've got some skill guys that can really move the puck so I know we're (good) at both ends of the spectrum," Motte said. "I think everyone is excited with the potential, but realistically we've got to take it game by game, starting with the first game against Toledo."