Phil Axtell is getting the chance he earned.
The Quad-City Mallards announced Thursday Axtell will be the head coach next season, moving quickly to keep the man they promoted in January to replace Terry Ruskowski.
It wasn't necessarily a no-doubt decision, not with names like Reading's Larry Courville and Alaska's Rob Murray on the coaching market. But by announcing the decision less than a week after the Mallards were eliminated from the playoffs, the Mallards made it clear they feel Axtell is the right man for the job, and eliminated any speculation or uncertainty.
Keeping Axtell was the right move, the latest from a team that is showing the willingness to try and bring a championship back to the Quad-Cities.
Firing Terry Ruskowski in January and putting a rookie Axtell in his place was a make-or-break decision. Ruskowski's resume could have made team owner Jordan Melville and team president Bob McNamara hesitant to make the switch and instead stay with the veteran for the rest of the season.
Giving the job to Axtell was a risk. McNamara said he felt the roster was good enough to contend, and if instead the team missed the playoffs, the organization would be forced to try and find another option at coach, perhaps resetting the timeline on when a championship could be realistically possible.
Instead, Axtell thrived. The team went 21-12-2 and went on an eight-game winning streak under his guidance. The Mallards scored over half-a-goal per game more than under Ruskowski, and played tight with the Fort Wayne Komets in the first round of the playoffs. Players responded to his coaching style and attitude, and the difference on the ice was obvious.
When the Mallards announced the decision to promote Axtell in January, McNamara mentioned how the team was no longer content with making the playoffs and losing in the first round, something that happened three of the four seasons under Ruskowski. Though the Mallards again exited early, they were competitive in the series with the Komets, taking two of the five games to overtime and keeping all but one of the games to a one-goal spread.
Now, there's a positive feeling entering the offseason. There's a feeling that this year's team — while good — may have been one year early from truly competing for a championship. There's a feeling that if Axtell gets the core of this team to return, while shoring up a few areas, that the Mallards might be the ones moving on next year instead of Fort Wayne.
There is still plenty of growth that needs to come from Axtell, and that's not unexpected. He was placed in a very tough situation, and he made the most of it, but he still is essentially a rookie head coach, with lots to learn and improve on. Every coach has to start somewhere, and what he accomplished in a half-season with the Mallards was a very good start to his head coaching career.
Now, he has to deal with things like trying to get players to return, something that Ruskowski struggled with, as well as recruiting players in the offseason to join the team. Ruskowski had a very good base of scouts and agents to draw on, but Axtell was also pivotal in landing several players from this year's team. He has a good eye for talent, and also has several connections, especially at the junior level. This includes Cedar Rapids coach Mark Carlson, whose RoughRiders team has been something of a pipeline for the Mallards recently.
He'll also have McNamara, who will retain his role as general manager and Jon Piche, director of hockey operations, there to help with this aspect, and those two will be valuable as Axtell settles into the role.
Axtell will have to deal with the stresses of the offseason and of coaching the entire season, not just half of it. And he'll also have to deal with the extra things like community involvement and media relations that Ruskowski's experience allowed him to treat as if second nature.
But Axtell impressed in just half a season, and the amount of growth from Jan. 20 to today was noticeable. It will be fun to see just how much more he grows next season, and the Mallards could continue to grow with him.