When he took the job back in June, Quad-City Storm head coach and director of hockey operations Dave Pszenyczny faced a pretty tall task.
In just three-and-a-half months, Pszenyczny had to build a roster from scratch, with no holdovers available from the Quad-City Mallards' time in the ECHL.
The only help was a Southern Professional Hockey League expansion draft in June before Pszenyczny had been officially named the head coach, and only one player from that draft — Austin Hervey — reported to training camp.
Forget being behind the eight-ball, the Storm didn't even own a pool table.
"That was a learning curve for me," Pszenyczny said. "You take pride in every transaction that you make and acquiring guys and trying to build the best team you have in camp."
Pszenyczny was excited about the team he originally assembled and the Storm opened their franchise with a bang, grabbing a 4-3 overtime win over the perennial power Peoria Rivermen on opening night.
A seven-game losing streak followed, and Pszenyczny quickly realized he needed to start making some changes.
Four months after the season opener, the team that takes the ice on the road tonight against the Knoxville Ice Bears is a much different one than the one back in October. Just seven players from opening night are still on the active roster.
Although he's new at this, Pszenyczny seems to have a knack for finding players and making successful trades as nearly every one of his roster moves have yielded contributors for the Storm.
"They've all panned out," Pszenyczny said. "They make me look good."
Cody Walsh had essentially retired, back home in Michigan when Pszenyczny brought him on board in November. He's the Storm's top-scoring defensemen with three goals and 13 assists in 34 games.
Sean Kacerosky had been waived by the Fayetteville Marksmen just six games into his rookie season after tallying no points. Since joining the Storm, he has scored four goals and added five assists in 32 games.
Shane Bennett had scored three goals and added six assists for nine points in 20 games with the Fayetteville Marksmen. Since being acquired by the Storm on Dec. 30, he has eight goals and eight assists for 16 points in 17 games.
Bennett's linemate, Vincent Beaudry, has scored two goals and added eight assists in 17 games since being acquired the same day.
"I've been doing a lot better since I got here, I've been producing pretty well, Beauds, the same," Bennett said. "We've been on a line together the entire time, and we clicked the moment we got here. All down the line, I think everybody kind of stepped up and it's an all-around team effort."
In his first year since retiring, Pszenyczny has relied heavily on his own experiences and he knows several of the players he's brought in from his playing days. Because of that intimate knowledge, he's learned to look beyond the stats when evaluating a player.
"I guess I'm fortunate enough to know what they bring to the table, playing against them," Pszenyczny said. "Then, you also do the background research on how are they as human beings? Are they good people, are they good in the community? Is a guy going to be a cancer in the locker room? That's stuff I don't want to touch."
Pszenyczny is giving his players opportunities and the extra playing time is paying off. He's moved Michael Casale and Stephen Gaul to the power play this week thanks to their efforts at 5-on-5 even though the pair have been with the team for only a matter of weeks.
"It sounds cliché but confidence is everything," Kacerosky said. "Just being able to be on the same page as (Chezy) and see the game the same way as he did, that helps a lot and I think that’s been a lot of improvement into my game."
It's clear Pszenyczny is becoming more comfortable in this new role.
A first-year coach might not have the nerve to trade his leading goal scorer, much less in exchange for a leading scorer from a playoff team, but Pszenyczny did just that on Monday when he traded Mitch Mueller to the Knoxville Ice Bears for Danny Cesarz.
"It's exciting because Danny is a top-six point scorer in this league," said defenseman Tyler Minx, who was acquired from Knoxville in November and has the top plus-minus among Storm defenseman with a minus-4 rating. "He's definitely making a lot of good moves and I think for anyone transitioning into a new role ... he can definitely coach but I think anybody is doing something the first time, you're going to have your ups and downs and learn different things."
Although these moves seem to be paying off, the Storm are still on the outside looking in when it comes to playoffs, currently in ninth place and eight points behind Pensacola.
It has a lot of ground to make up in 18 games. Though this season might not end with a playoff berth, these moves could pay off for next season.
Pszenyczny can protect 13 players once the season is over and could convince others to simply re-sign. Of those 13, not all will return as some may decide to retire or try to get a shot in the ECHL.
But there's potential on the roster, which doesn't yet include Joe Widmar, currently up in the ECHL, or Cesarz, undergoing post-concussion evaluation in Michigan. Both were point-per-game players in the SPHL, and could be big additions late this season, or key pieces for next year.
The Birmingham Bulls finished last year six points out of a playoff spot but were a tough out down the stretch, winning eight out of 10 in a month's span before finishing the season 0-6-1.
This year, the Bulls won their first 11 games of the season and are in second place in the league.
Pszenyczny thinks a similar turnaround could be in the cards next year, though he's not ready to look past the end of this season.
"I would have loved to have had this team at the beginning of the season," Pszenyczny said. "For the most part, I love the core I'm thinking of bringing back. We're going to make the Quad-Cities a powerhouse in this league and I hope it starts soon with making playoffs in our first year here."