When the Quad-City Mallards entered training camp in October, there were a lot of unknowns.
With almost an entirely new roster coming in after last season, questions about goaltending, defense and scoring were at the forefront.
Sam Warning was one of the few known quantities, one of seven players to return from last year.
Though those questions have been answered as the season unfolded and the team has made the playoffs for the fifth straight year, Warning's presence provided reliability from the start.
"It’s been crucial to have him on our roster," head coach Phil Axtell said. "He can play on the top offensive line, he can play on the shutdown line, he can play right, he can play left, he kills penalties, he can be on the power play. For him to be where he is, playing how he is, it’s huge for our team and our success."
Warning had a solid rookie season last year for the Mallards, scoring 16 goals and adding 15 assists in 65 games but has enjoyed a breakout campaign this year. He has scored 23 goals and added 29 assists and is one of five Mallards to eclipse the 50-point mark this season.
Among his highlights this year are two hat tricks and a game-winning overtime goal Sunday against the Wichita Thunder, his sixth game-winner of the year, tied for the team lead.
"It’s definitely been a fun year so far," Warning said. "We've had a lot of fun inside the locker room this season. It's a special team in there and it's a lot of fun showing up to the rink every day."
Warning's speed made him dangerous last year, but he's added some size to his frame and the results have paid off. He's been able to protect the puck much more effectively, an extra weapon to go along with the blazing speed.
"His speed is one of his best assets," Axtell said. "When he’s able to wind up and get going, he’s pretty hard to stop. You can’t hit something you can’t catch."
When the Mallards traded longtime defenseman Mike Monfredo to Rapid City in February, Warning became the team's active leader in goals, assists and points. Once the team released Nick Grasso later in the month, Warning also became the team's active leader in games played.
Warning has now played 128 games with the Mallards, scoring 39 goals and adding 44 assists.
"Whenever you see a guy like 'Fredo, a guy who’s put in a lot of time here, get traded, it’s tough," Warning said. "I know he was liked by a lot of the fans and a lot of the players in the locker room but it’s a business and sometimes you just have to move forward ... It’s pretty cool but it’s just something. It’s just a number to me."
The Mallards already have four designated captains and alternates, and Alex Petan and Brady Brassart are splitting the 'A' between home and road games. So Warning won't get any special recognition, but he has been just as important in the locker room as the others.
"He’s one of those guys that does anything that’s asked of him," Axtell said. "If I could put another letter on someone, he’d be next."
Warning also had a role in landing Justin Kovacs and Michael Parks in the offseason. He played with both in juniors with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and grew up playing hockey with Parks, as both are from the St. Louis area.
Being reunited with his former teammates has added a level of comfort to all three players. Kovacs is second on the team with 55 points while Parks leads the team with 27 goals, the highest single-season total for the Mallards since Chris Lipsett scored 28 in 2010.
"I felt comfortable, I played with those guys my whole life, especially Parksy so I have to give a lot of credit to all the guys I play with," Warning said. "Any time you can get guys with that skill set and that work ethic to your team, it’s only going to benefit the team."
Though his presence has been beneficial for the Mallards, it's surprising Warning hasn't received an AHL look. He is 5-foot-10, but teammate Alex Petan is one inch shorter and has seen 19 games in the AHL this season.
"It’s surprising that he has not been given a chance in the American League," Axtell said. "It’s a shame he hasn’t been given the opportunity because he’s got some things that I think some teams could use."
It's an added bonus, then, that Warning remains fairly level-headed, not too worried about his own accomplishments.
"That’s the way I’ve always played it," Warning said. "You don’t really go for personal stats but instead go for team success and I think that’s kind of shown on the ice this year."