Coach in the Corner

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Photo (c) Panthers Images
In his first article for The Cat’s Whiskers, Ben Royle comes to the defence of Panthers coach Corey Neilson.

We’ve had this feeling before, a big budget Panthers side short benched and underperforming, the hope of an Elite League title fading period by period.
It’s a dark Tuesday night in early December, Panthers have just announced the signing of Stanley Cup winning Jason Williams. A big signing with vast experience and huge potential to have an impact in the Elite League, but will it be enough? What can become of this season which is dwindling away before our eyes, and why does this keep on happening?

Last season ended on such a high, Chris Lawrence’s hazy eyed tweets of “WE LANDED ON THE MOON!!” epitomising the joy of Panthers fans. We’d won the double, it’s not quite the title, but it is the double for the third time under Neilson alongside the all-conquering treble side of 2012-2013. The ecstasy of Panthers fans as Evan Mosey’s shot ripped by Ben Bowns at the Sheffield Arena in March, or when Kevin Quick’s shot snuck past Brian Stewart in the Play-Off final is a sensation that is hard to match. However, as an organisation, we manage such success almost year in year out no doubt down to the expertise of Corey Neilson.

If I were to offer you the return of Cam Janssen right now, you’d bite my hand off, right?
The man was quickly becoming a legend in these parts, as well as throughout the Elite League. His knockout blow to Tyson Marsh was viewed by thousands back in North America. The scene attracted the attention of NHL fans who were salvaging what they could of a dying trade in hockey, the enforcer, whereas we were watching it. Right in front of our very own eyes was a seasoned NHL enforcer, playing with his heart on his sleeve for our team. #55 recorded 3 goals and 5 assists in 51 league games, alongside 1 goal and 2 assists in the Challenge Cup, which is hardly spectacular but he was the heartbeat of our side.
A highlight of the post season for myself was the news that Cam would be returning, for not just one, but two more seasons. However just a month before the campaign got underway the news broke of Cam’s retirement. A fair choice for him to make, but heart breaking for Panthers fans. A player who would put bums on seats, work hard for the team and was a good option for captain. How can that be replaced? How can we expect Corey to replicate such a unique character at such late notice?

After our recent endeavour, if you could call a 6-1 beating at the hands of our nearest and dearest an endeavour, we’ve conceded 21 goals in 3 games in the Sheffield Arena. Another player that Corey Neilson had worked hard to re-sign for this year, who was a mainstay on the blue line for every league game throughout his 2 years in Nottingham, was Bryan Schmidt. Panthers’ number #4 hadn’t missed a league game, a consistent defenceman, who would guide the defence throughout the highs and lows of the season, how we could wish for such a player now. Schmidt’s official retirement wasn’t announced until the 4th of August, leaving Corey little time to work on a replacement, especially someone who could replicate Schmidt’s leadership and experience.

It was the Saturday night of play-off weekend, Panthers had just beaten the Fife Flyers in the semi-final to secure a place in the final, as I strolled through the rink on the way back into town, my friend and I saw Evan Mosey speaking to some fans.
“Shall we get a photo?” I exclaimed, it’s still fairly acceptable for me to do so, even if I tower over most the players.
“Nah, we’ve got another two years to get one” we decided.
Oh how us young’uns can be naive, we didn’t get those extra two years, and the Panthers are showing just how vital Mosey was. Similarly to Janssen, there’s no animosity towards Evan, he seized an opportunity that he earned. What we do have to live with, however, is that the team is worse off without Evan Mosey. A player like Evan, who could be used all over the ice and was even willing to change his jersey number to accommodate returning signings, is hard to come by. Mosey was a needle in a haystack with just one year of professional hockey before arriving in Nottingham. Through his hard work and the support of Neilson, he’s gained an opportunity in Rockford, which has left a crater in the side’s roster and led to a tough replacement for Neilson to make.

We’ve already spoken about three players who contributed massively to the team last year, none of whom did so hugely in terms of numbers, with a total of just 72 points between the three of Schmidt, Mosey and Janssen. In contrast, a player who contributed hugely on the scoreboard, and was offered a new contract, was Juraj Kolnik. The ex-Florida Panther was up there with the Nottingham Panthers top points scorers, with 28 goals and 29 assists in 50 league games, alongside 6 goals and 11 assists in 13 Challenge Cup games. The man was a points machine, vital in our double winning success. Kolnik didn’t sign for his current side Jonquière Marquis in the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH) until the 25th of August, which dealt late blow to the Panthers to recover from, especially when a contract had been on the table for his return.

Christmas has come early
Don’t you get the feeling that Christmas comes round faster every single year? The shop speakers bellow out the same songs on repeat for hours on end, the John Lewis advert begins to flood your tv screen, and the Panthers fall down the Elite League table faster than the pound fell after the European Union referendum result.We’ve just reached December, yet we’ve been riddled with injuries already, what a wonderful time of the year.

We’ll start with Stephen Schultz, the man who was averaging a point a game before his injury this season and was present on a rare successful Panthers power play on Saturday night, threading the needle for Brad Moran to slot home leading to the teddy bears pouring onto the NIC ice. Schultz is essential for the side if the Panthers want to do well, 29 points in 32 league games last season in which he missed November and December through injury, as well as the Play-Off final deadlock breaking goal back in April. This season has been much the same for Schultz, 8 points in 9 games so far, in addition to 4 assists in 2 Challenge Cup games. Schultz improves the Panthers and an unfortunate injury caused by a fluke hit is nobody’s fault, but it is something that Panthers have had to deal with during our poor run of form, but now he’s back I believe things will improve. They can’t get much worse can they?

Similarly to Schultz, Chris Lawrence had been on fire for the Panthers to begin the season, a 5 goal game in an old fashioned shootout against Manchester in October, as well as the first goal in the home opener which was finished off with an empty net goal, Lawrence began the season as the man for the big occasion. 14 goals in 18 games in both league and cup is no mean feat. The Panthers were unlucky to lose him to injury. Larry could be likened to Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, including the off-ice antics. When he plays, the Panthers are a better side and as he returns to full fitness, things will begin to look up for the side heading into a tough December, which is already into full flow.

A bit closer to home, the old fan favourite David Clarke has had a stop-start season so far, 7 points in 12 league games, to go with 3 points in 6 cup games isn’t a bad start for the 35 year old player-assistant coach. A healthy David Clarke will provide goals, and can spark a team that needs some fire. After all, there’s a reason Clarke’s the only player to score 350 EIHL goals. Injuries come with the nature of playing at such a high level for so long, and hopefully his employment as an assistant coach will support the team in keeping fresh bodies on the ice going forward.

Please Sir, can I have some more?
Now, we moan about injuries, we moan about being short benched, but surely we can bring in short term replacements? Surely there’s a young Brit d-man who can fill Sam Oakford’s spot on the roster, so where are they?
Including the announcement of Jason Williams by the Panthers on Twitter, which the official account seemed ever so excited by, Panthers have brought in just three signings since the season got into full swing. Williams, Slovak defenceman Kristian Kudrow & Czech forward Petr Kalus. The latter of which has become used to the revolving doors at the NIC. Kalus’ second, and if you wish, third stint, were slightly uneventful, but it was a body on the ice, it saves players like Jeff Brown an extra 5 minutes a night, which is vital for the side going forward if we wish to prevent further injuries.

We all know Corey can make high quality signings, as we saw late on last season. The additions of Kevin Quick and Franklin Macdonald were hugely effective in supporting the teams push for silverware. So, why such little reform of such a poor Panthers side this time around? Those above Corey are not providing sufficient resources to improve the side, they’re more than happy to reel out more money gaining schemes, such as the shirt off the back raffle and to show off the ever growing list of sponsors, but where’s this money going?
The reluctance to splash the cash, even for a British defenceman to replace Sam Oakford is detrimental to the team on the ice.

Dan Spang has been a scapegoat for the defence performance of the side so far, let’s not bring up the chin strap incident, but he’s simply going to be shattered. Icing too many minutes to make up for a short bench night in night out is only going have a negative effect on the way you play, especially when you could be covering for a forward thrown in at the deep end, such as Logan Macmillan.
The club should be providing the resources for Corey to bring in more signings, and while they don’t, things won’t begin to improve.

The disease dives deeper
The success that this organisation has achieved under Corey Neilson has been monumental. Since Neilson signed for the Panthers as a player in 2006, the club have achieved 5 Play Off titles, 7 Challenge Cup titles, as well as breaking the 57 year wait for the league title in 2013.
This does not improve the current state of the organisation by any stretch of the imagination, but if a man who has a proven record of success in the Elite League with the Panthers, and has gone down in Panthers history with the retirement of #77, is still working hard for the club and still wanting the best for the club, we should support him.
The lack of resources, such as a full-time strength and conditioning coach, along with restricted funding to supply injury replacements, shows how the problem doesn’t come down to Neilson. The problem runs much deeper within the organisation, those above Neilson should be the ones held directly accountable, not Corey himself. He’s been successful before; I believe he can be successful again.

I’m backing Neilson.

You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenRoyle11

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