Mike Leone is excited for a fresh start.
After missing all of last season with lingering effects of a concussion, the 29-year-old forward was back on the ice Sunday as the Quad-City Mallards opened training camp at the River's Edge.
"Last year was a tough year for me," Leone said. "I'm really excited to join the Mallards and get an opportunity to play hockey again."
Leone knows what it takes to be successful as the Mallards prepare for their 21st season as a franchise, fourth in the ECHL. As part of Toledo, he helped the Walleye capture the Brabham Cup as the top team in the regular season in 2015.
"I think it starts with the guys in the room, just having a good group of people," Leone said. "Being accountable, that's the most important thing ... when you're on a winning team, just everyone buying into their role."
It feels like something of a fresh start as a whole for the Mallards. Phil Axtell is entering his first full year as head coach after taking over midseason for Terry Ruskowski. The Mallards are entering their first season as affiliates of the Chicago Wolves and NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Even their arena has a new name, as the iWireless Center is now the TaxSlayer Center.
Now the team starts working on making the playoffs for the sixth straight year after getting knocked out by the Fort Wayne Komets in the first round last year.
"It's here," Axtell said. "Today was just getting the kinks out, getting the legs going and tomorrow we'll start going."
Axtell has been a part of building the Mallards' roster in the past, but this is the first roster he's had complete control over from the start. He's been focused all summer on building something that can be successful.
"It's night and day. It's 7 in the morning, I slept at the rink sometimes this summer," Axtell said. "It's phone calls, it's emails, it's driving to see kids. There's a lot of ownership. I created it. Hopefully it's good."
There's plenty of reason to think the Mallards can continue to enjoy success under Axtell. The team figures to return three of its top four leading scorers — Justin Kovacs, Sam Warning and Josh MacDonald were not on the ice after skating in the Chicago Wolves' preseason game Saturday night and captain Chris Francis also did not skate — as well as goaltender C.J. Motte, who was also in Chicago's camp after being named an all-star last year.
With that experience returning, Axtell is hoping he can build on an impressive coaching debut in which he was 21-12-2 after taking over from Ruskowski. The Mallards averaged 3.6 goals per game under Axtell and he hopes this roster can be even more dangerous.
"Similar to last year, just a little bit better," he said. "A team that's going to play for one another, a team that's going to pay attention to details and do the little things right that hopefully add up to success."
One day isn't enough to gauge anything, but first impressions are important, and new players came away excited with the potential this year may bring.
"I think we've got a lot of speed and some size to go along with that and I'm really excited," defenseman Kyle Bigos said. "We were a little bit rusty, I could tell guys weren't happy with themselves so coming out tomorrow I think there's going to be a big jump up in execution and speed."
Twenty-six players were on Sunday's training camp roster and that does not include MacDonald and Warning, or any potential players sent down from Chicago.
That depth will allow the Mallards to have a competitive camp in lieu of any exhibition games, before their season-opener Oct. 13 against the Toledo Walleye.
"It's going to help determine who can play and who can't," Axtell said. "We're going to end each day with a little bit of a scrimmage, more compete than just drills and siphon out the guys that make the team and the guys that don't."
Mallards make trade: The Mallards traded the rights to defenseman Andrew Panzarella to the Norfolk Admirals in exchange for forward Garrett Klotz. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Klotz has played in 429 games, scoring 30 goals and adding 43 assists with 963 penalty minutes in his career.
The Mallards also signed forwards Ivan Hodulov and Stathis Soumelidis as well as defenseman Kristaps Bazevics on tryout agreements.