Nottingham Panthers 2018/19 Season Review

It’s all over, all over again and as is now customary the TCW panel will cast their thoughts on the season past, the highs, the lows and everything in between!

You can go to each individual player review by clicking on their name below

Netminders:
Michael Garnett
Sam Gospel
Patrick Munson

Defence:
Tim Billingsley
Tommy Hughes
Steve Lee
Gui Lepine
Dylan Olsen
Jaynen Rissling
Josh Tetlow

Forwards:
Ollie Betteridge
Tyler Biggs
Alex Bolduc
Jacob Doty
Robert Farmer
Alex Guptill
Kevin Henderson
Mark Hurtubise
Justin Kovacs
Robert Lachowicz
Brett Perlini
Luke Pither
Jon Rheault
Dylan Richard
Chris Stewart
Marek Tvrdon
Tyler VanKleef

Here are the season summaries from all The Cat’s Whiskers team:

Joe Balm
Overall this season has been awful.  I had my concerns at the start of the season with the type of team Chernomaz had built as it wasn’t a template that had been successful in recent years but I had faith in Chernomaz as this was the type of team he likes to coach. Pre-season came around and any concerns I had were soon gone as we were playing incredibly well even though the team had been together for a short period of time. Happily the good pre-season form continued into the regular season but only untill November and unfortunately our Christmas slump came earlier this year, even with a new coach and team.  This poor form continued to January which is not surprising as our performances were awful, there was no fight or passion from the players, a lack of leadership and devoid of any ideas. This lead to Chernomaz being sacked as he could no longer win the league and Strachan took over the role of head coach.

Performances and results under Strachan continued to decline (including an awful 2 legged exit to Guildford in the challenge cup) until we were in the hunt for the playoffs and then the players decided to turn up and were able to recapture 3rd place.  Going into the playoffs we had built up a little bit of form and this lead to a good result over 2 legs against Fife.  This then lined up a game against Cardiff in the 2nd semi-final which gave us a little hope because Cardiff had yet to win against us at home this season.  However this was not the case as we were humiliated by Cardiff 9-3 in the worst Panthers performance I have ever seen at playoff finals weekend and arguably the worst performance there has ever been at the playoff finals weekend.

Going forward into next season an overhaul is needed in both the on and off ice teams because while our owner states that the league is the ultimate goal, we are consistently nowhere near winning it.

Sam Balm
A season that started so well and promised so much as the ‘new era’ began ultimately fell into the same old pattern we’ve been experiencing in recent seasons.  Chernomaz, despite his pedigree, wasn’t a suitable choice as head coach as his style and team blueprint didn’t fit the EIHL.  He attempted to rectify the mistakes he made while putting the roster together in the off season with a spate of signings as the season progressed, most of which did not work out well.  Chernomaz ultimately paid the price for his mistakes as we fell out of realistic league contention in December despite a good start and Chernomaz was replaced in mid-January with Rick Strachan as interim head coach.

It did not get better.  In fact it probably got worse under Strachan as results slipped further.  A shockingly poor Challenge Cup semi-final and a limp to 3rd place in the league due to the good start and teams hitting poor form around us.  The play-offs only compounded the season we have endured and for me are a good enough reason alone for why we should be looking elsewhere for a new head coach.  There is an urgent need for a clear out of the dead wood at the Panthers and the injection of fresh ideas into the club as a whole ahead of the 2019/2020 season.

Antoine Marie-Jeanne
It’s safe to say I was buzzing at the start of the season. We’d signed a team that, in my eyes, was championship calibre, albeit slightly short on goals. We’d signed a big, and I mean BIG, roster (no player was under 6ft except Lacho, Ollie and Gospel). We’d signed a team which to me looked perfect to play the style of hockey I enjoy watching. A team that wouldn’t be pushed around, a team that would hit hard, play hard and make life miserable for the opposition. It was a team that wouldn’t back down and would work together to find a way.

And things started off that way, an impressive pre-season was followed by an equally impressive start to the season. Sheffield were dealt with on opening night and we followed with impressive wins over Belfast (in Belfast no less) and Cardiff. A couple of tight losses away to Cardiff and Sheffield sandwiched a bad game in Glasgow, but we kept bouncing back with better performances and more wins.

Roll into October and I’ve not known a collapse like it from the Panthers. Usually it’s the historic Christmas collapse that puts paid to any potential title challenge, but this year, aside from another dominant home win over Sheffield and a tight away win in Dundee, we were soundly beaten for the rest of the month…including a hammering away in Milton Keynes and Belfast.

It wouldn’t get any better, and Chernomaz got the boot, replaced by Mr Reliable, Rick Strachan. By which time even our owner admitted we were out of the title race…but we still had the Challenge Cup to play for and there was always the end of season Play-Offs. Potentially two trophies and another Cup Double.

We should’ve seen the end coming as early as the Cup Quarter-Finals, a fantastic win in Manchester was followed by an awful return leg in Nottingham and we squeaked into the Semi-Finals. That was as good as it got. We were soundly beaten by Guildford home and away. And through teams beating each other the Panthers finished 3rd, a distant 22 points behind the top two.

A rare high at that time was our quarter-final win over Fife…it gave us belief that we could pull off a miracle end to the season, however the gulf between us and the top two was further emphasised with our mauling at the hands of Cardiff in the Play-Off semi-final. Season over on home ice in embarrassing fashion.

Sadly it’s a tale long-term Panthers fans have seen on many an occasion. Equally as sad was the amount of games I simply walked out of. There was plenty of anger (especially on Teddy Bear Toss night!) but the was equal amounts, if not more, of nights that I’d simply given up and felt “meh” about the whole thing. I’ll be back next season of course, the Panthers are my team and I will support them till I’m no longer around, but my season ticket won’t be renewed. Doing the sums I’d have saved over £80 last season had I simply only gone to the Friday and Saturday games. Mid-week games are a pain to get to with work early the next day, and I’ve never been a fan of 4pm on a Sunday!

I hope I’ll be back as a Season Ticket holder come 2020/21…but that’ll only happen if I see a perceived change in the way the club is run. For me, the Panthers are a Sports Team, not an entertainment package. Making money is a very good thing, especially when you look at how other teams are struggling, but I sadly don’t see the culture at the club as one that wants to do its best. I’d love us to take what Cardiff and Belfast have done – they are so in tune from top to bottom, whereas we seem so dysfunctional with priorities in the wrong place.

We shall see…next season, bring on the new new era…hopefully.

Adam Reddish
A #NewEra was promised by the club for the 2018/19 season, whetting fans appetites for what awaited them in the first season without Corey Neilson’s involvement in the Panthers since 2006-07. Newly-appointed Head Coach Rich Chernomaz certainly made all the right noises before a puck had been dropped, speaking of his desire to assemble a gritty, hardworking side who wouldn’t back down from confrontation and promising that his team would take the game to rival clubs. It all sounded rather good, and after criticisms of the rather passive style of hockey under Neilson, Chernomaz’s very different coaching philosophy prompted excitement amongst the fan base that season 2018-19 would offer a credible tilt at the EIHL title. Recruitment was characterised by the signings of several tall and physical guys, but these were interspersed with what looked like the right blend of skilled guys (Pither, Hurtubise, Kovacs & Guptill) who could get supporters out of their seats.

The early signs were promising. A nine-game unbeaten run spanning European opposition and clubs better known to Nottingham opened the season. Matches were exciting spectacles and after a listless ending to 2017-18 it was once again refreshing to be looking forwards to games. However, the gloss quickly wore off. Whilst the wins continued, Panthers were making heavy weather of finding ways to crawl over the finishing line, not helped by a consistently misfiring group of forwards meaning the D needed to be on their game all the time. The physicality that helped define the roster was tailing off, and a woeful October saw seven defeats (including two to sides who failed to qualify for the end of season Play Offs) which once again killed off any realistic hopes of making a serious charge for the title. The team’s consistent inconsistency was clearly irking Coach Chernomaz. Roster changes were now in vogue, and a number of controversial decisions to bench certain players was clearly designed to fire the proverbial rocket in the direction of those who cared little for the Head Coach’s methods. It didn’t quite get to the stage where a revolving door was needed to the home locker room’s entrance – but it wasn’t far short.

By this time, it was clear the train was in the process of derailing. Panthers benefitted from fortuitous fixture scheduling which saw them maintain their place either in first or second right up to Christmas by virtue of having played substantially more games than every other side. In all honesty, most fans knew it was a false position and when Cardiff and Belfast applied the burners over the festive period (let’s not even go near own Christmas efforts), Panthers progressively settled down to a distant third. A pair of defeats to the Storm spelled the end for Chernomaz – his brief tenure at the helm perhaps remembered most for his efforts to impersonate Steve Backley one night in Kirkcaldy after one too many decisions had gone against the visitors. In explaining his decision, Panthers owner Neil Black went all Countdown numbers round on us, proclaiming that the departed coach had fallen too far behind in how many points he had been expected to secure by that stage of the season.

So Panthers were now in a #NewNewEra, or was it back to an #OldEra as the erstwhile Rick Strachan was asked to take over the reins for the remainder of the season. Those who remembered Strachan’s last stint as a Head Coach at the Hull Stingrays knew the hockey was hardly likely to be free-flowing. The team to that point had badly underperformed, yet with two trophies still up-for-grabs, there was a degree of logic in making a coaching change in a bid to inject more competitiveness and urgency from those wearing the black and gold. Sadly, the fairy tale turnaround desired by Neil Black simply didn’t materialise and a Challenge Cup QF exit at the hands of a skilful Guildford outfit whittled down the remaining available silverware to just the Play Off title. Something of a slight pulse flickered through Nottingham veins throughout March, although a run of victories against those finishing in the bottom half of the standings were overshadowed by an injury to star D-man Dylan Olsen (a rare bright spot for the season) and yet another suspension picked up by the maverick Jayden Rissling. Olsen returned just in time for the PO QF series (is a two-legged game really a series?) and helped his side through to Finals Weekend in Nottingham after a pair of professional performances against the Fife Flyers.

The SF match against Cardiff was always going to prove a stern test for Panthers. Pipped to the EIHL title by an almost metronomic Belfast team who had ruthlessly chased them down, Devils were clearly wanting to atone for the heartbreak of missing out on the league. And thus they proved too much for a characterless, inconsistent Nottingham team who resembled scared rabbits in headlights on their own ice. Cardiff’s high-calibre forwards skated rings around a lost-looking Panthers, and some of the D and netminding was certainly not of the standard any fan would have hoped for during such a big game. Disappointing, yes. Surprising? Sadly not the least little bit.

I’ll admit to being mightily relieved this season has now ended – something that started with promise and hope couldn’t come to a conclusion quickly enough. The Chernomaz experiment failed, and the roster upheaval both before and after his departure helped to sink Panthers prospects of silverware before they’d really even got off the ground. It’s clear to me that big changes at the club are now needed in order to challenge Belfast, Cardiff and no doubt Sheffield after their annus horribilis. Whether the inclination to alter the focus of the organisation from one seemingly more interested in providing a Saturday night refuge for those wanting beer and fun than in winning leagues burns fiercely enough inside Neil Black remains deeply questionable and his silence since Panthers Play-Off exit sits uneasily with me. He’ll no doubt point to healthy crowds in the NIC throughout season as a valid barometer of the health of the Nottingham Panthers, and whilst financially this is important to the long-term sustainability of hockey in the City, it should not be seen as the be all and end all. For a club of this size and stature to be so distant to those finishing in first and second places really is a damning indictment on all those involved in making hockey-orientated decisions at the organisation.

Tina Taylor
Last season I made comparisons about the team which had an air of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ to it with Rich Chernomaz being the head chef, sadly it appears he ended up starring in ‘The Apprentice’ and was fired before he was able to reach the final stages.  To be fair, you could see it coming.

As is standard for the Panthers, the team came out of the blocks hard, giving a good account of themselves in pre-season and generally giving the fanbase something to feel good about in the post-Corey Neilson era, the #NewEra as it was dubbed but sadly, as the season went on the #NewEra gave way to #SameOldSameOld!

It might seem churlish for Panthers fans to whinge about a team that never got lower than fourth in the league table but another season has passed since we won the coveted league trophy, still we’ve been nowhere near the title hunt and as we’re constantly reminded we have the resources that most other coaches in the EIHL would give a kidney for!  Our owner has claimed on numerous occasions that winning the league is a priority to the Panthers organisation, actions speak louder than words Mr Black and I can’t say we’re really seeing it.

We should have done better, we were promised better, younger and hungrier gave way to hard-hitting and more entertaining and for a while we saw it but it got reigned in when we started getting into penalty trouble.  Until that point there was a genuine danger that we were working up to something that resembled an identity and then it was gone, so it left the team in a state of flux, if they weren’t playing the hard hitting style of hockey that upwards of 75% of the team had been signed for then what were they actually doing?

I’ve been a Panthers fan for a decade now and this is the first season where I’ve not been sad to see it end.  There have been some great moments and a couple of marvellous away trips with good people but I won’t remember this season as a whole with much fondness.

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