Stability versus performance.
That's the decision Quad-City Mallards owner Jordan Melville had to weigh this week and Thursday decided to opt for the former, giving head coach Phil Axtell his support despite the team sitting at the bottom of the ECHL standings.
Melville met with everyone in the organization over the last four days, and though changes were made, letting go of Axtell was not one of them.
Melville would certainly have been justified if he decided to move on from Axtell, who is in his first year as head coach. The team is on a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak, and Axtell didn’t make the road trip with the team last weekend for undisclosed reasons.
Firing Axtell would have sent a message, but it's hard to tell how it would have been received, not just by the players and fans but also the sponsors.
If the Mallards had fired Axtell, it would have been the third major personnel move by the team in less than a calendar year. The team fired Terry Ruskowski from his head coaching position on Jan. 20 last year and parted ways with team president and general manager Bob McNamara on Dec. 12.
Another major firing screams instability, especially when compounded by the glaring lack of a lease with the TaxSlayer Center for next season.
Both Melville and TaxSlayer Center executive director Scott Mullen have voiced confidence a lease agreement is on the horizon, but showing is always better than telling in this situation.
By retaining Axtell, and extending the affiliation agreement with the ECHL for three more seasons, there's at least still some level of foundation that can be built on moving forward.
There's also, frankly, not a clear better option other than Axtell. Last year, Axtell had at least served as an assistant under Ruskowski for more than two years. This time, the only clear option to replace Axtell is current assistant Mike Leone, who is in his first year as a coach of any kind and handled the coaching duties last weekend.
When weighing the options, Melville decided it was best to stay with Axtell for the moment.
From here on, it's all about accountability for the Mallards.
Axtell has to take as much blame for this year’s struggles as the credit he took last season for guiding the Mallards through the coaching change, when he went 21-12-2.
He's made some roster decisions this season that haven't helped, trading Chris Leibinger and letting Orlando grab up captain Chris Francis and flip him to Wheeling.
But Axtell has also made some good moves, namely trading for Willie Raskob in the first week of the season, with the rookie earning all-star honors last week. He also traded for Jake Bolton, another piece intended to solidify the Mallards' defensive zone, and brought in Tristan King when Francis got injured prior to training camp.
Axtell isn't the only one who holds blame for these struggles.
On the ice, the Mallards are last in the league in offense and defense and near the bottom of the league on special teams.
Coaching has a large role in that, but the players also need to be more accountable and do the right things to try and fix their weaknesses, even those potentially caused by a rookie head coach.
The organization itself is also responsible for many of these struggles. As a rookie, Axtell needed as much familiarity as possible and instead was hit with a lot of unknowns.
Instead of having another year of affiliation with the Minnesota Wild, the Mallards decided to affiliate with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, a team without a deep pool of prospects that could help the Mallards.
The Mallards' schedule also did the team no favors.
Thirteen of the team's first 16 games were at home, and many of the Mallards' road games have been day-of-game or overnight trips, a great way to save money but a lousy way for wins as players are asked to compete hard shortly after hopping off a bus.
The team also let go of longtime equipment manager Drew Kitts in the offseason. Kitts had been in the Quad-Cities since 2007 and was named ECHL equipment manager of the year in 2016.
In his place, the Mallards promoted rookie Tom Carroll to the position. Surrounding youth with more youth can often lead to bumps in the road, like the one the Mallards hope they're soon getting past.
Moving on from here, the future is still very uncertain.
The Mallards are seven losses away from tying the league’s winless streak record, and if the team drops another 13, it's possible Axtell could still be gone before the end of the year.
The locker room continues to be in flux.
The team is currently short-staffed and may have to turn to the SPHL for help. Two players have already left for Europe, and it's possible more will join them. Hopefully the players still on the team show some character and resist the urge to jump ship, but it's hard to say no to the deep pocketbooks of the European teams.
With Melville deciding to retain Axtell, he’s made it clear where the buck stops. Everyone is responsible, and everyone needs to do better.
Melville also has held himself accountable, acknowledging the lack of leadership around the team that was generated when the organization moved on from McNamara. Melville not only reaffirmed his financial commitment to the team this week but also committed himself to being much more hands on than the seemingly absentee owner he’d been in his first few years.
For the Mallards, this week feels almost like a reset button, and for all the fracturing that might have happened over the last 13 games, there’s still 40 games left. The playoffs are likely out of reach, but the focus must now be on moving past this last week and month.
A win tonight won’t fix everything, but it can be a much-needed start.