C.J. Motte's season a lone bright spot for Mallards

Author: Bobby Metcalf, qctimes.com
Date: Mar 23, 2018

A lot of expectations were placed on the Quad-City Mallards at the start of this season.

The team returned four 20-goal scorers from a team that won 40 games. It had a promising young head coach that won 21 games, including eight straight, after taking over the team midseason.

And perhaps the icing on the cake was the return of C.J. Motte, who earned all-star honors while winning 20 games in net for the Mallards.

"My first year here, I had a great time," Motte said. "Coming back, I wanted to help the team the best I could, but I also wanted the opportunity move up, and I felt coming back here gave me the best opportunity to do both."

The team didn't meet any of those expectations, with the worst record in franchise history and no ECHL membership after this season, but for Motte, the decision to return has paid dividends.

The 26-year-old earned four call-ups to the American Hockey League with three different teams — the Iowa Wild, the Chicago Wolves and the Stockton Heat.

"It’s nice to get an opportunity up there and hopefully get my name out there for potential for the next year or following years," Motte said. "Every opportunity is just an experience, you learn from each team you’re on. Each team does things a little bit different so you just take all those experiences and make the most of all of them."

However, those opportunities have come at the expense of the Mallards. Motte has spent more than half the season up in the AHL, 88 of the 162 days so far. Quad-City has paid the price, winning just 12 games without last year's all-star.

Sitting up in the AHL while his ECHL team was losing was tough but also just part of the business of minor league hockey for Motte.

"I think everyone that’s been in hockey, especially at the professional level, kind of understands how it works in that way," Motte said. "We had a lot of challenges this year, a lot of adversity. ... Throughout the year, guys here struggled through adversity and some things, but that just shows a lot of character. We still go out there, still try to get better every day at practice and still do our best to win every game."

Motte hasn't followed up on his all-star year, at least not with the Mallards. He's 8-14-0 this year with a 3.60 goals against average and a .907 save percentage in the ECHL, far cries from last season when he was 20-11-0 with a 2.68 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.

But for Motte, numbers don't tell the story.

For many reasons — an affiliation change this offseason, injuries, trades — the Mallards haven't had the same level of talent in front of the net. Seven of the team's 14 total defensemen from last year had played in the AHL, compared to five of 14 this year, but two of those — Kenney Morrison and Jared Nightingale — played less than 10 combined games in the Quad-Cities.

The team's eight AHL players from the Iowa Wild last year played 296 combined games. The four the Mallards received from the Chicago Wolves this year played in just 60.

As a result, none of the three goaltenders who have played more than 10 games have a goals against average lower than Motte's 3.60, and his save percentage also is the highest among the three.

"It's the players in front of him," head coach Phil Axtell said. "It was a loaded gun from the beginning. ... That doesn't mean these players are bad, they're just not first-line guys."

When Motte has played been in the AHL, he's succeeded. He's 2-2-2 with a 2.51 goals against average and a .908 save percentage this year with Iowa and Chicago, and he's learned something everywhere he's went.

"Every team I’ve been on, they’ve all had different goalie coaches so it’s nice to work with all of those goalie coaches who all have a little different tweak on what they like, what they see," he said. "I’d like to think I’ve grown a lot, especially mentally. It’s tough to go up and down and be on your ‘A’ game every game, but that’s just part of the mental game."

It feels like Motte has done more than enough to earn a permanent spot in the AHL. He's played 13 career games and has gone 4-4-3 with a 2.32 goals against average and a .916 save percentage up in the AAA circuit. For comparison, those numbers would place him in the top 12 among qualified AHL goaltenders this season. But those numbers aren't the ones that matter.

With most teams at all levels retaining just two goaltenders, there aren't many spots open for those who weren't draft picks or prospects.

"It’s hard for someone to stick. He wasn’t replacing someone that was playing poorly, he was playing in someone’s spot who was injured," Axtell said. "He proved that he can play. It’s now earning a contract to be one of those guys next year."

And that's a decision that can be tough for a team.

"Are you going to give (it to) the guy you’ve already signed and drafted and put time into or are you going to take a player not in your organization?" Axtell said.

Axtell will do all he can to make sure Motte gets a chance with an AHL team next year. His services will surely be desired by teams around the ECHL, and Europe is always an option.

But Motte isn't focusing on where he might end up. Instead he's committed to the Mallards one final time.

"That’s everyone’s hope, to play in this league to get an American League contract for the following year, and that’s mine as well. But as of right now, I’m really just trying to take our next game and go from there," he said. "You can’t control anything other your game and what you’re doing and making the best of the situation you’re in."

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