The Quad-City Mallards have had several issues surrounding their league-worst record this season but the biggest might be the revolving door at the goaltending position.
The Mallards have had 10 different goaltender combinations this season and seven different men have seen action in net for the Mallards, the most of any team in the league.
"It’s definitely something we think about going in day to day, who you’re playing for, who’s backing you up," defenseman Kyle Bigos said. "Goalies have strengths and weaknesses, maybe playing the puck or with traffic in front of the net so you adjust as needed."
With the return of C.J. Motte on Monday, the Mallards finally have the goaltending combination they envisioned at the start of the season — Motte paired with Ivan Kulbakov, an all-star paired with a promising rookie.
That duo was last together on Dec. 2, when the Mallards were 8-10-1 and just three points out of a playoff spot.
In the time since, both Kulbakov and Motte have seen time in the AHL and with either one and sometimes both gone the Mallards are 3-15-3.
"The guys have a different confidence level with those two in the net," Mallards head coach Phil Axtell said. "Not that the other five goalies that we’ve had play for us weren’t good, there’s just more familiarity with these two, they’d been here since camp."
In years past, goaltending consistency was the biggest strength of the Mallards.
Last year, Motte and Adam Vay were both dressed for 61 of the team's 72 games, with both winning 20 games.
In 2016, Brody Hoffman and Steve Michalek both dressed for 39 of the team's 72 games before Michalek earned a call-up to the Iowa Wild, but Hoffman remained the constant. Hoffman dressed in 70 of the team's 72 games, 25 of which were paired with P.J. Musico.
That trio combined for all 37 wins.
In 2015, the Mallards' first in the ECHL, Parker Milner and Evan Mosher were both in the lineup for 64 games, the duo grabbing all but one of the team's 37 wins that year.
This year is a much different story.
Motte and Kulbakov have both dressed for eight of the team's first 40 games, just 20 percent. With either Motte or Kulbakov in net, the Mallards are 10-15-1. Everyone else is 1-10-3.
"To have that dynamic duo back is very exciting and gives us a new sense of energy," Bigos said. "Having these two, our strongest goaltenders back, that's going to make us play more freely."
Motte hasn't even had that successful a year with the Mallards. Constantly up and down between the Mallards and the AHL, Motte is only 2-7-1 with a 3.13 goals against average and a .913 save percentage, far cries from his all-star numbers last season. But the time spent up in the AHL — where he's 2-2-2 with a 2.52 goals against average and a .915 save percentage — have been valuable to his growth.
"It’s a little different year, a little more mental year," Motte said. "You don’t get into a groove playing every week or just a couple games every week so it’s more mental toughness than physical, you go out there, you practice every day trying to get better so you work on things there and then it’s just you’ve got to be mentally ready when you get ready to go for the game."
Though the goaltending situation has finally returned to some semblance of normality, the Mallards can't just hope to get bailed out by a strong presence in net, as evidenced over the weekend when the team went 1-2-0 with Kulbakov.
"I think it’s pretty easy to see," Axtell said. "We go to Brampton and play the right way and get a win. We go to Worcester and we didn’t play the right way for 60 minutes and we get two losses with Ivan in net so players have to play, that’s what it boils down to."
While Motte and Kulbakov figure to get the bulk of the starts as long as they're down here, Axtell plans to keep Eric Hartzell on the roster. He learned from earlier this year when he traded Branden Komm — then serving as the team's third goaltender — only to lose Kulbakov the next day and Motte less than two weeks later.
"I’ve got faith in him," Axtell said of Hartzell. "His practices are getting better and my plan is to keep him here as long as he wants to be here in that role and as long as he keeps getting better in practice, he’s going to get a game."
What happens in Vegas: Despite the Mallards' struggles, their new NHL affiliate is having a record-setting season. The Vegas Golden Knights were 32-12-4 and owned a nine-point lead for first place in the Pacific Division heading into Tuesday's games.
With just eight more wins, the Golden Knights guarantee they finish the season with a winning record, uncharted territory for an expansion team.
The Florida Panthers had the best expansion season in the NHL before Vegas, going 33-34-17 in their first season back in 1994.
The Golden Knights' season is set to be the best start for an expansion team, not just in hockey but in all of the four major sports.
The 1961 Los Angeles Angels finished 70-91 in their first baseball season. The Chicago Bulls own the NBA's best mark for an expansion team, going 33-48 in their inaugural 1966-67 season and after the NFL-AFL merger in 1966, the Carolina Panthers set the bar for the NFL, going 7-9 in 1995.
Tulsa returns Tuesday: The Mallards get an early start to next week when they host the Tulsa Oilers on Tuesday, a resumption of the Nov. 17 game that was suspended during the second period after a medical emergency involving Tulsa head coach Rob Murray.
Action was stopped with 12 minutes, eight seconds remaining in the second period with the Oilers leading 2-1. The game will pick up from that point.
Admission to the resumed game is free.
This week: The Mallards kick off their longest homestand of the season today against the Cincinnati Cyclones, the puck dropping on $1 Beer Night at the TaxSlayer Center at 6:35 p.m. The Mallards are 0-4-2 this season against Cincinnati.
The Mallards host the Kalamazoo Wings for $2 Dogs/$2 Beer night presented by 97X Friday at 7 p.m. The first 1,000 fans will receive free Mallards pint glasses courtesy of WQAD News 8's "Brewed." The Mallards are 1-3-0 against the Wings this season.
Saturday the Mallards host the Wichita Thunder for Chick-fil-A Night at 7 p.m. The Mallards will team with Chick-fil-A to provide prizes throughout the night. The Mallards are 0-2-1 this season against the Thunder.