With his team at the bottom of the ECHL standings and on a 13-game losing streak, Quad-City Mallards owner Jordan Melville spent this week meeting with everyone in the organization.
He acknowledged changes needed to be made but a change in coach was not one of them.
Melville voiced his support for Phil Axtell as head coach Thursday, keeping that part of the team stable despite acknowledging the entire franchise needs to be reviewed, not just in on-ice performance but also in the business operations.
"We all have to be better, but I have full confidence in my coach that we can turn this season around," Melville said. "It's going to take some real hard work, but for the time being, obviously we're reviewing all of our operations from revenue generating to the experience on the ice, and that's going to be continuing forward."
Axtell is in his first full year as head coach, and the Mallards are currently 8-21-3 heading into tonight's game against the Indy Fuel. Axtell is 29-33-5 as Mallards coach after taking over midseason from Terry Ruskowski last year.
"I looked at the market, and there's not a lot out there that I consider better than the man that I trust," Melville said. "Phil's a new coach. We know when someone's new in a job, there's going to be some growing pains, and you don't develop talent by giving up when there's opposition."
Though Axtell will remain head coach, the Mallards did make some changes to their organization. Jon Piche was released after serving as director of hockey operations the last two seasons. Brian Lavelle, director of communications and broadcasting, will take on many of the duties previously performed by Piche, including serving as the team liaison on player transactions and salary cap compliance and also overseeing the team's travel arrangements.
Piche's removal is the latest in a long line of personnel changes made in the last calendar year. The Mallards changed coaches last January and moved on from team president and general manager Bob McNamara in December.
"We were doing a real look at our organization, spending a lot of time with the state of where we were in the standings, especially recently," Melville said. "We were really looking at our options and when you have that kind of a record, a lot of people will start trying to improve things."
Axtell's future was in some doubt after he did not make the trip with the team last week down to Wichita and Kansas City. Nobody in the Mallards organization commented on the reason behind his absence, but Axtell was back on the ice conducting team practice Thursday morning.
"It was the best thing for the team at the time," Axtell said. "We met, and now we're moving on."
Melville did acknowledge the timing of McNamara's firing played a role in the turmoil, as Melville couldn't stay in town after the move, needing to tend to his other assets that are part of his ownership group Melville Global.
Melville plans to be on hand much more for the second half of the season, assisted in the review process and the overall operation of the team by Darryl Porter, who will serve as special adviser to ownership. Porter has served in leadership roles for teams in the Western Hockey League and has operated as a scout for NHL and major junior teams.
"I made a huge error when Bob left," Melville said. "There was a power vacuum left because there was no one in (McNamara's old office). A lot of people, with the best interest in mind, tried to fill that void.
"What happened last week, I take responsibility for. It wasn't Phil's fault. It wasn't any of the players' fault. It's because I left a power vacuum in here and it's been filled."
Melville made sure to demonstrate his commitment to the team, meeting with everyone in the organization and also with Lieutenant General Stephen Twitty, commander of the First Army, headquartered on the Rock Island Arsenal, looking for leadership advice.
"He took me through what he thought made a leader and what you need in people," Melville said. "It was probably one of the best half hours of my life. It was just inspiring and changed me in a lot of ways and the way I look at leadership. ... One of the things General Twitty taught me was three words in particular — loyalty, trust and respect.
"I spent a good 20 minutes (Thursday) with the team outlining what I think it takes to be a Mallard, how we're going to treat each other and how we're going to hold ourselves in the community, at the rink and on the ice, and I'm already seeing a huge change."
The players appeared receptive to the message at Thursday's practice, with smiles and hard work evident during the session.
"I think moving forward we know Phil's the coach, and whether you like it or not, that's the way it is," said forward Sam Warning, who is the longest-tenured player on the team. "At the end of the day, if you really want to win games you've got to buy into the system.
"The biggest thing for us was going into the week and trying to find our game, establish our identity and go from there. Obviously it's tough, you can look at certain things here and there and nitpick, but at the end of the day it comes down to everyone in that locker room being on the same page."
Melville and Porter will both be reviewing the entire organization the rest of the season, but the team's owner reaffirmed his commitment to keeping the Mallards in the Quad-Cities for the foreseeable future.
The team announced it has extended its affiliation agreement with the ECHL for three more seasons, and the team will launch its season ticket renewal drive later this month.
The biggest step left to take is for a new lease agreement to be signed between the Mallards and the TaxSlayer Center. Melville and arena executive director Scott Mullen both voiced their confidence that a deal is coming, with Melville making clear his desire for the agreement to be for the long term and not a one-year deal like the current contract.
"I don't just want to keep kicking the ball down the road by doing one-year deals. I'm tired of doing this every year," Melville said. "This is going to get done."