The 21st season of Quad-City Mallards hockey gets underway tonight when the Mallards host the Toledo Walleye. The Mallards have enjoyed plenty of success in the recent years, making the playoffs for five straight seasons, but like any new year there are questions that will need to be answered.
Some can be answered tonight; others won't be resolved until April or later.
New name, different result?
The Mallards drop the puck for the first time at the TaxSlayer Center, its first game at the building formally know as the iWireless Center.
The Mallards haven't had much success in home openers under the old name. They have suffered regulation defeats in each of their eight home openers since the team returned to the ice in 2009 following the two years of the Quad-City Flames and are 0-8-1 in their last nine home openers.
The team's last home opening win was on Oct. 21, 2005, when it defeated the Motor City Mechanics 4-3 in a shootout while competing in the UHL.
They'll try to go 1-0 in the TaxSlayer Center tonight against the Walleye. Toledo won the Brabham Cup last season as regular season champions, finishing with 106 points. A win could go a long way toward building something special, but the Mallards aren't prepared to put too much emphasis on one game.
"Regardless of the outcome, it's going to be a great stepping stone for this group," head coach Phil Axtell said. "We're going to make mistakes regardless of who we're playing or what game it is. We just want to get on the ice and try and execute as well as possible, play as a team and correct our mistakes afterwards."
Full year of Phil
This is now Phil Axtell's team. He built it over the summer and is ready to coach it through the season. It's Axtell's first time opening the season as a head coach, and there will be plenty of emotions tonight when the team takes the ice.
"I feel confident but anxious, maybe a little bit nervous, excited," he said. "Just a mixing bowl of emotions with what I've been working all summer to build something, and it's here finally."
Axtell admitted emotions are quite a bit different from when he made his coaching debut on Jan. 20, leading the team to a 5-4 shootout win over the Missouri Mavericks mere hours after finding out he was taking over for Terry Ruskowski.
"I found out I was going to coach that Friday night at 8:05 in the morning," he said. "I've known about this game since April when they said I was going to be back."
Axtell went 21-12-2 after taking over as coach, guiding his team to the playoffs before falling in the first round. Now with a full offseason to assemble the team, he thinks he's put together a squad that not only can make the playoffs but potentially make some noise once there.
Building the blue line
One spot that was a concern before camp was the defensive corps. With just two returning defensemen from last year's team in Alexander Kuqali and Chris Leibinger, Axtell had to assemble a group that could not only protect the defensive zone but also create some offense of its own.
He feels he's done that, building a group that combines several different attributes to create a solid core. Kyle Follmer returns after a season with the Fort Wayne Komets, Greg Amlong joins the team from the Elmira Jackals and Ales Sova has impressed in camp after coming over from Europe.
A lot of the attention has been on the return of top scorers Sam Warning, Justin Kovacs and Josh MacDonald as well as the return of all-star goaltender C.J. Motte.
If they're doing their job, not much will have to be said about the defensive corps, and they're just fine with that.
"We're mobile, we have big bodies, smart players. ... I'm just excited for everyone else to get going," Kuqali said. "We can get lost in the mix because that's the type of team you want to be. ... We're a high offensive team, that's what our motto is. We want to take care of the (defense), but it's also good if we don't get noticed. If you're not talking about me, I'm okay with that."
A new partnership
The Mallards moved away from their affiliation with the Minnesota Wild, joining the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the offseason. Don't be surprised if that doesn't pay a lot of dividends early.
Just one player from the Chicago Wolves, Vegas' AHL affiliate, is down for the opener in forward Keegan Kolesar. The Cleveland Monsters, affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets, also sent down two players in goalie Ivan Kulbakov and defenseman Jacob Graves.
That might be it for a while in terms of contracted players coming down to the Mallards, and that might not be such a bad thing.
"It allows us to build our chemistry with the guys that we have to start the season," team president and general manager Bob McNamara said. "The fact that we have a bunch of guys returning from last year has a big difference, the fact that Phil had the opportunity to put his own team together this summer, to put together a group he feels comfortable with that has chemistry."
There certainly is chemistry as every player except for Sova has played with another member of the team at some point in his career.