It was a year of learning for the Quad-City Mallards.
Ten rookies were on the playoff roster and seven played in the first round of the playoffs against the Fort Wayne Komets. Head coach Phil Axtell was a rookie himself, taking over from Terry Ruskowski on January 20, and though the Mallards fell 4-1 in the series to the Komets, they were a bounce or two away from possibly taking the series and moving on.
Though the year ended with disappointment, the education that went on this season could be valuable in years to come.
"I learned that there’s a lot of ins and outs, a lot of things behind the scenes I knew but didn’t understand, how much time it takes to manage 20-some hockey players and the team," Axtell said. "I learned that each player is different. I knew all this stuff but I learned a lot. It’s hard to put into words. It’s a lot of work."
Axtell was put into a tough situation, promoted from an assistant and taking over a team that had lost seven of eight games. Axtell wanted to make sure the season wasn't lost as a result.
"I took over when we had the losses, the unfortunate situation and I went from being good cop to now having to be both bad cop and good cop," he said. "They were already kind of down so I couldn’t just jump on them. It had to be worded and presented to them so that I didn’t lose them too."
So Axtell kept a positive tone throughout the rest of the season, and the team responded. The Mallards won eight straight games, and finished with 40 wins for the first time since 2006.
The respect the players had for him was evident from his first night, rallying back from a three-goal, third-period deficit to beat Missouri, and was evident again in the season-ending loss Saturday, rallying back from a 3-0 deficit before ultimately falling 3-2.
No matter the adversity this season, the team never packed it in.
"He did an amazing job," captain Chris Francis said. "He came in, treated us all with respect and we respected him for that. He's only going to get better. Coming in halfway through the year under tough circumstances, he did a heckuva job."
The biggest question entering this offseason will be the future of Axtell. He had the interim tag removed in February, but doesn't have any sort of contract headed into next year.
"We've had discussions about it but we're really pleased with the job that he did," team president Bob McNamara said. "To take us where he took us, and get over 40 wins and get into the playoffs early, I think he did a great job there. Obviously we were up against it with Fort Wayne, a really good team. A bounce here or there, and I know that's cliche to say, but it's always true, maybe we're moving on. I think he did a good job relating to the players, relating to the fans and working with the front office."
The Mallards know they have to move quickly, so that whoever the coach is has time to start working on putting together next year's team. Axtell said he would like to be back with the Mallards, and is already looking at ways to improve next season.
There is plenty to like on the team, with five 20-plus goal scorers, and if the core returns, Axtell feels the team could be poised to take a big step next year. He wants next year's team to be more defensively sound, but also with the potential to score in bunches.
"That’s going to be one of the decisions I have to make on who is the core of this team and who is going to better the team next season as a group and build around that," he said. "I feel this year we had a lot of similar players. We didn’t have a huge playmaker, we had five 20-goal scorers so that’s good, we need something like that but we need that 80-point guy.
"We need to find that. Now, is that person within the group we already have? There’s a good possibility, and that’s just what we have to look at going forward."
Though it ended with another first round exit — the fourth in the last five years — McNamara said he felt the season as a whole was a success, but there's plenty to work on, particularly from the front office, which will get right to work within the week. Attendance was down an average of 441 fans per game from last season, and the team averaged 2,179 fans in its three postseason games last week.
"I think we've taken some steps on the corporate side, on the tickets size, we would have liked to have seen more of an increase in attendance," McNamara said. "I was particularly disappointed in the playoffs. When your team works so hard to get in the playoffs and your crowds are around 2,000 every night, you'd like to think we'd get more support in the playoffs and that's something we're going to build towards next year."