When Rapid City Rush head coach Daniel Tetrault took to the podium in June as the new hire for the organization's 10th season, optimism abounded.
The first-time head coach had the benefit of a new affiliation with the National Hockey League's Minnesota Wild, the Rush had signed a 10-year lease with the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to stay in Rapid City, and fan excitement was high as a new era was about to begin.
Fast forward to Monday. Players were cleaning out their lockers after a 25-41-3-3 season that yielded 56 points and left the Rush in last place in the Mountain Division.
It may not have been what Tetrault envisioned when he took over the team, but he said Monday that he is still optimistic. He thinks the Rush, who ended the season with a 4-1-0-0 run, have built some positive momentum with good play down the stretch and player additions made in the last half of the season.
"From Christmas on, we were close to a .500 hockey team, so that was a big positive. We made quite a few changes, we had a rough start to the year and that really hurt us," he said. "We had a lot of rookies sent down from Iowa that had never played in a pro league, and we didn’t have an established, number one goalie to start the year."
The rough start doomed the Rush. Rapid City lost the first five games of the season to division rivals the Colorado Eagles, Allen Americans and Wichita Thunder by a combined score of 26-13.
Another 10-game losing streak in late November and early December that was coupled with injuries to starters made the Rush's place in the basement secure. In addition to the games, the team also lost Ian Brady, Dylan Labbe, Michael Sdao and Gustav Bouramann to injury.
It was the moves Rapid City made in the final month of the season that has Tetrault excited. He said he and assistant coach Nello Ferrara sat down at the trade deadline and had to face the facts — the standings weren't about to change.
"Nello and I said ‘listen, we’ve got to start the process of recruiting and getting this lineup ready for next season,' because we knew there was no way we were making the playoffs," he said.
They started with trading Kenton Miller to the Adirondack Thunder for Andrew Radjenovic. Radjenovic scored 16 points in 13 games for the Rush.
Tetrault said there is a "great probability" that Miller could also be back in Rapid City next season. If a veteran isn't signed by Aug. 1, they become unrestricted free agents, and Tetrault said the Rush would be interested in bringing him back.
In addition to Radjenovic, Rapid City also signed seven players who impressed Tetrault, some of them coming from the Western Hockey League.
"I don’t have anything against college players, but I had way too many this year," he said. "It’s a soft schedule. They only play 30 games, they only play weekends, they’re not used to the grind or physicality. When you play the Colorados, the Allens, the Wichitas in our division — they just couldn’t handle the physicality, and it cost us a lot."
The WHL plays a 72-game schedule like the ECHL, and Tetrault said he likes that the players are used to the bus trips and physical play.
Rapid City added Aaron Boyd, Mitch Nardi, Willem Nong-Lambert, Alec Baer, Adam Marsh and Brayden Sherbinin in the last month.
"It’s looking good for next season for sure," Tetrault said. "That’s the bright spot, and I’m really encouraged by that and the way we finished the season. The last five games, we could have won all five; we went 4-1. I know it’s the end of the year, but they played with a lot of pride. These kids competed, plus adding that size, as well."
Next year's schedule will also look different, and Tetrault said he isn't complaining.
The Rush's main rival, the Colorado Eagles, are going up to the AHL starting next season. Colorado won the Kelly Cup last season and the Mountain Division this season by going 48-18-4-2 with 102 points.
"I’ll be glad to not see the Colorado Eagles anymore, to be honest. When you have to play a team like that 15 times — we have the toughest schedule in the league by far, and I’m not making excuses, but it’s the truth," he said. "They were always good games, close games, physical games and the fans are going to miss that rivalry because of the short drive. I’m sure the fans are going to miss that, but they’re a powerhouse in the league so I’m not going to miss them from that aspect."
Tetrault also addressed rumors that the Rush could change affiliations and go from being the Eagles' rival to being partners.
The Eagles will be affiliated with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche.
"If we are affiliated with them, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all," he said. "It’s a short drive, and I know coaches personally, Aaron Schneekloth and Ryan Tolbert, I know Scott Mueller; our owner, has a good relationship with their owner. If it’s Minnesota, great."
Tetrault said he's enjoyed the affiliation with the Wild, and said whoever the Rush want to be affiliated with is not in his hands.
"Next year we might be with the Wild, but that’s out of my department," he said. "I liked (the affiliation with Minnesota). I talk with the coach in Iowa, the kids they sent me, there’s a lot of good ones."
Dante Salituro and Pavel Jenys were two of those players in the eyes of Tetrault. He said Matt Caito was also one of the good players, but he was hurt and spent a portion of the season in Iowa.
"We developed a lot of these kids, and that was the problem. So much inexperience, not used to the pro game, Nello and I had to work so much with these kids. We were learning every day as well," he said. "Working with these young kids, trying to engrave in their mind what it takes to be a pro hockey player every day and getting used to the physicality of our division, it’s tough to teach toughness."
Tetrault said he learned a lot in his first season at the helm, and he said he's excited for an offseason that will feature more moves as well as the 2018-19 season.
"It was a tough year, but we finished strong and it’s looking great for the offseason, and next season, we're optimistic," he said. "A lot of kids who we brought in love it here in Rapid; it’s something to build off of."