There's something new and exciting in the Missouri Mavericks locker room.
No, it's not the New York Islanders logo that comes from the team's affiliation with the NHL team.
It's not coach Richard Matvichuk's spacious new office or the league-issued CCM sticks that line the wall heading into the team's inner sanctum.
That's right – confidence – which is something that was missing from last year's team.
The Mavericks stubbed their toe in their first season in the ECHL. They joined the elite Double-A league a week after the regular season had started. Matvichuk and general manager Brent Thiessen had spent the offseason building a CHL powerhouse and then, that struggling league folded and they were rushed into the bright lights of the ECHL – and they were blindsided.
For the first time in the history of the team, the Mavericks failed to make the playoffs. They had a revolving door of players coming and going and never seemed to find their niche. Matvichuk and Thiessen vowed this season would be different – and boy, have they delivered so far.
The team is 8-2-1 and stands atop the Central Division and the ECHL (entering Tuesday) with 17 points. Goalies Josh Robinson (5-0-1) and Parker Milner (3-2) rank No. 1 and No. 3 in the league respectively. Robinson was the ECHL Goaltender of the Month for October and owns two shutouts and Milner stopped the rival Thunder over the weekend as the Mavericks claimed 1-0 and 2-1 victories at home and on the road.
“It's so early in the season,” said Robinson, who battled through an injury-plagued 6-10-2 season last year, “but I've never been on a team that is this close. We're still getting to know each other – on and off the ice – but we really care about each other, and it shows when we're playing.”
While the goaltending has been sensational, the offense has been equally impressive.
Jesse Root is tied for third in scoring in the ECHL with 12 points (7 goals, 5 assists) and teammates Tyler Barnes (4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points) and Kellen Jones (3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points) are right behind.
The Mavericks didn't have a player in the top 20 in scoring all of last season, and while the goaltending and defense struggled, the offensive side of the game was non-existent with the exception of longtime fan favorite Andrew Courtney (who broke his own single-season goal mark with 34).
“This is a new team, a more talented team and one of the best teams I've ever been a part of,” Courtney said. “You look around the locker room and you see a lot of smiles. There weren't a lot of smiles last year.”
Matt Stephenson, who retired at the end of last season, is now helping the Mavericks with their video department. He sits on press row for every home game and loves what he's watching on the ice.
“I don't know if I've ever seen a team with this much talent,” Stephenson said, smiling.
Of course he was smiling – everyone is smiling. There is even a smirk on the face of Matvichuk on occasion.
“We do have a lot of talent and we have a lot of guys who really care about each other,” Matvichuk said. “We knew we were building something special in the offseason, but all that was on paper. Now, that we see them on the ice, we're pleased with what we have.
“This could be a special season.”
That's right, a real smile producer.
Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at 350-6333 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC.