Hotel California

With the regular season now over Paul Balm delivers a damning assessment of Nottingham Panthers season

As I write this Nottingham Panthers’ league season has ended in an embarrassing shambles. The third period wasn’t playable in Manchester tonight due to ice issues so they decided the game (tied at the time at 2-2) in a penalty shoot out. Now you could point out that this happened minutes after the Storm had just found out that they had reached the playoffs following Sheffield’s victory over Coventry, so there wasn’t really all that much to play for but that would be churlish and you’d probably be barking up the wrong tree anyway. You could also point out how ironic it was that the Panthers should win a game that was only two periods long, given how often they’ve failed to turn up for at least one third of a game this season.

It does seem fitting, though, that the Panthers’ regular season should end in this fashion. Let’s face it the majority of this season has been an embarrassing shambles that a lot of us are already trying to forget. In a lot of ways it has been a repeat of far too many seasons before, defeat after ignominious defeat, injured players not being replaced quickly enough and the mistakes in recruitment simply not being addressed. OK there could still be a fortnight to go. We could still make the finals weekend but does anyone who has seen us actually believe that this bunch of players has it in them? I remember thinking as I wrote my end of season player evaluations last year that they would have been very different if we hadn’t won the playoffs. Well, it looks like I’m going to get that chance this year. Unfortunately, I can’t find what I wrote so I can’t remember what I gave those players that were here last year so I’ll have to tread carefully. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Those 230 minutes of as close to perfect hockey as we saw all that season (the other 10 minutes at home against Belfast were forgettable) definitely had an improving effect on my scores. This season is likely to be very different. I can honestly say that I don’t think a single player who was here last year has improved this season. The only possible exception in all this is Robert Farmer who continues to play at the top of his game.

It’s often said that a team needs continuity if it is going to perform and Corey Neilson, for all his continual line changes throughout the season, certainly did that in the off-season bringing back 13 players (including Brits) from last season’s side. That would be fine if that team did well but for 90% of the season they didn’t. They finished 5th. Add to that the fact that the replacements for key players have not performed then you can see why this season has been as poor as it has. There are players in all this mess that I don’t necessarily blame. Players like Lindhagen and Nikiforuk who didn’t exactly come in with a great pedigree but at least have looked like they’ve been trying most of the year. On the flip side of that there are those that I definitely do blame. You’ve probably all got names in your heads right now so I won’t go over them all but suffice to say I don’t want to see pictures of players, posted by themselves, of them drinking, smoking or sitting on foreign beaches whilst simply phoning in performances. I’m all for the players being allowed to have a bit of relaxation time but when you read them answering questions about whether they’re in Europe for work or holiday by saying a bit of both it doesn’t exactly fill you with the joys of spring does it?

All that makes me wonder what the club are doing about that. Are they happy that the players in question are portraying themselves on social media in this way? I know I wouldn’t be. It’s been very noticeable this year that Corey Neilson has been far more vocal about the failings of his teams in games. Only this week he vented his frustrations after the Sheffield game but I’ve heard it all before. Things might have changed from blaming the ice to blaming the players but it’s just the same old same old “I did what I can but the players didn’t listen”. In my opinion it sounds to me like he is trying to distance himself from the team he created. I’m sorry but there are two key points here for me. The first is that they’re Neilson’s team, he signed them so he has got to take the blame for that. I said earlier the recruitment was poor and I stand by that belief. OK, things didn’t go our way losing Evan Mosey and Cam Janssen (particularly so late in the off-season in the latter’s case) but these things happen. Maybe we should be questioning why they seem to happen every off-season. Other teams improved over the summer, I don’t think Panthers did and you’ve got to question why that is? Why are so many players dropping out, why do we seem unable to bring in players with the same pedigree as others into key roles? OK, we’ve got players of the calibre of McGrattan but where is the sniper? Where is the stay at home defenceman? Both players/roles that this team has been so obviously missing since August? The second point is the coaching: Neilson has said he’s tried to teach them but they haven’t learnt anything, well that just says to me that he needs to find new methods or replace the unteachables when he had the chance.

At the recent Q&A Neil Black was adamant that Corey was in charge of the team, the recruitment, the coaching, everything. That, to me, means that he has to take responsibility at the end of the day. The fans don’t want to be told they didn’t play how he wanted them to, they want to see changes and he is the one who is being paid to bring about those changes. It’s very easy to be a good coach when things are going well but that doesn’t make you a great coach. What makes you a great coach is turning things around when everything is not going your way. Great coaches find a way to get the best out of players. I’m not saying that there aren’t players who you can’t change, who are uncoachable but all that says to me is that they shouldn’t be employed.

I said earlier that we didn’t change players when we had the chance but maybe Corey didn’t have that chance. I have to wonder if this is the case. It’s OK the team saying that they’re looking for the player who is the right fit but what does that actually mean and were they even telling us the truth. What was so special about Sarkanis that made him such a good fit for the Panthers? The cynic in me says those key attributes that made him so appealing were that he was cheap, available and willing to sign for the Panthers. Other teams seem to find players at that time of year so why couldn’t we? Is the coach not looking in the right places or are the blocks coming from elsewhere in the organisation? Is he not being allowed to recruit who and when he wants to? We were also told by Neil Black that the current team was the most expensive ever. Maybe he’s simply got fed up of spending more money. The 2012/13 team was a lot cheaper apparently. I’m still not sure why he told us that, it just made this season that much harder to bear.

It gets said time and time and again (probably by me) that the coach should be at the centre of any sports club and Nottingham Panthers are no exception. Except Corey Neilson isn’t. At times it feels like ice hockey is just a distraction for the Nottingham Panthers. Before tonight (and I’m not sure tonight counts) the Panthers had put on more film screenings than they had away wins in 2017. Something about that really doesn’t ring true for me, in fact it makes me want to throw something breakable at a wall. Is this club run to keep the sponsors happy or is it run to win games? And does it really matter? I know Friday’s game will never go down in anybody’s list of top 10 games (and if it does I’d seriously consider a change of sport if I were you) but where I was sat at least half the crowd couldn’t care less. The only person who was paying less attention to what going on was the steward at the bottom of the block who let an almost constant stream of people up and down the stairs whilst the game was in play. There was the sort of hubbub that you get when you go to the theatre or to see a stand-up comedian and the place is full and everyone is waiting for it to start. This wasn’t when play was waiting to start this was when the puck was in play. What I’m trying to say is that the game on Friday was little more than an entertainment to a large proportion of those that were there. I wish I could afford the best part of £20 and spend the vast majority of the game facing away from the ice so you could talk to your friend sat behind you.

I think the time is long overdue for the club and everyone in any position of power in it to take a long hard look at themselves and ask if they are part of the problem or part of the solution. The need to change has to be seen by the club before anything can happen. It’s like the way a drug addict has to see there’s something wrong before they’ll try to kick the habit. I’m not expecting miracles, we’ve been here too often and I’ve essentially written his article too many times to expect anything to change rapidly or at all. There’s too much wrong for it to happen quickly but the priorities have to be to put the coach and the centre of the club. There is a huge potential in this club that isn’t being tapped at the moment and if that continues into the future then it will be a crying shame.

I saw someone, it was a Cardiff fan in fact, describe the Panthers as a sleeping giant the other day. They were right but I think we’re closer to comatose than just sleeping. What’s worse is that the club could just as easily be in a medically induced coma, kept in a catatonic state because it suits some as they get what they want out of the club, regardless of whether that is for the good of the club or not. The worse thing is that if they were doing that we wouldn’t even know, we’d just turn up week in week out helping them achieve their goals.

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