No Spark

Paul Balm writes about the current problems surrounding the Nottingham Panthers, off ice but mainly on ice.

I’m going to do something I don’t normally do this week – write about ice hockey. I know that might sound strange but I’m not entirely sure that I normally write about ice hockey, more the things that go on around it. I hardly ever talk about what happens on the ice but this week will hopefully (writing these articles and controlling where they go is like herding cats at times so I can’t be sure) be a bit different.

It’s December, a time that’s supposed to be full of joy, frivolity and more games than you can shake a hockey stick at but right now for the average Panthers fan there’s precious little joy, nothing much to feel frivolous about and the thought of another dozen or so games before Little John rings in the new year is enough to leave us groaning like someone who has eaten all the (mince) pies.

The thing, put as bluntly (and as cleanly) as I can, is that the Nottingham Panthers are not very good. No, they’re not even that good, they are quite frankly as bad a “team” as I can remember them fielding for a long time. That might be a bit harsh as:

a) I’ve just passed my 36th hockey watching anniversary so I’ve seen a lot of Panthers teams, plenty of which wouldn’t have stood a chance against this team (think the first two games in Jaca). Saying this is the worst team ever doesn’t really work when you’re comparing across various standards. There’s no point comparing Chris Lawrence to Paul O’Higgins. Not that I’m singling Lawrence out (yet) you understand.

b) We have been relatively spoilt over the past few years. We spent years dreaming of league titles, watching on jealously as rivals new and old rose to the top of the table. I remember saying after the Panthers won the playoffs that year that it was never going to be as good as this again, I just didn’t realise how quickly it would all go so wrong.
And, you know, it has all gone wrong. The most important word in that last sentence is all. With the possible exception of the number of people taking seats at games these days there are problems at every level of this club. Every level. I’ve written about a lot of the off-ice ones before but I’m still trying to focus on the on-ice product (and I don’t mean Panther Bear either, although…)

There’s so much missing from this Panthers team but for me the two biggest ones are cohesion and heart/motivation/togetherness. Let’s start with cohesion. There isn’t any. We don’t look like a team to me, we look like a group of individuals put out onto the ice by a coach who, at times, doesn’t appear to know what to do with them. Some of this is down to bad luck. You can’t sign cohesion, you don’t know how the players you sign are going to get along with each other until you’ve had them all in the same changing room for a couple of weeks. Don’t get me wrong a good team probably won’t all like each other but they can get past that and play together. Panthers are simply not doing that. There are too many missed passes, too many pucks moved to where the person presumably should be but isn’t. The constant switching of lines doesn’t help either, in fact I’d say it goes a long way towards creating the on ice confusion. OK, we all know that when the going is good you don’t need to change lines, you get lines that click and if you’ve got any sense you leave well alone. You have to give lines time to see if they’re going to click though and that needs longer than a couple of periods.

Heart/motivation/togetherness is, I admit, a decidedly unwieldy and possibly inaccurate title for a big part of what is missing from this team. I don’t mean that they aren’t trying. I think they are but there just isn’t the quality there. As soon as I saw the roster begin to be built this year in comparison to others I felt that other teams across the league had moved forward in the quality of player that was being signed and we didn’t. League places don’t lie and we were a fifth placed team last year and we re-signed a large number of players from a fifth placed team. I know stability is important but you have to have a solid foundation to build on and I’m not sure that a fifth placed team was the place to start. You could argue that injuries affected us badly last year and they are doing this and you could well be right but what is the club doing to try and resolve those issues? Do we have a conditioning coach? Have we had one since 2012-13? OK, we had injuries that year too but they all happened to Martin Tuma. We’re going round in circles (not) doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome and that’s madness.

This side lacks character. There’s no one on this team that can do anything to rouse a crowd. OK, McGrattan can fight and at times he shows some decent skills but there’s no end result. He’s undoubtedly going to be taking a fair portion of the budget and what do we get in return? I have to say very little. Where are the players on this team who can take a game by the scruff of the neck and turn it to our advantage like, say, Jordan Fox, could? They’re not there. When was the last time you saw a shift that got the crowd going like Cam Janssen last season? Last season probably and don’t get me started on the subject of the lack of an out and out goal scorer. Maybe that unwieldy title is inaccurate after all, maybe it should be replaced by a single word – spark. There’s nothing there, no fire, no one to stoke the flames and create something. I walked out Saturday’s game, a game against our biggest rivals and I just felt flat. I should have been seething, angry, fired up with the injustice of it all but I just went to the pub, quietly discussed the game and then starting talking about other things. I’m actually getting far more angry about the fact that I wasn’t angry at the time than I was at the time.

Are we getting used to losing? Maybe. Perhaps that’s why I felt so little because I expected so little. Have the performances so far this season brought to the level where I expect nothing from the team? I have to say that they probably have. I don’t see this current crop of players/coaches producing anything other than an extended period of mediocrity. I still hope they prove me wrong but hope and expectation are two very different things.

So, where do we go from here? I wish I knew. It’s clear to me that this season it really isn’t working. OK, we’re in the Super Final or whatever it’s called but that’s like buying Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference gravy and forgetting to cook the turkey. If we win it great but I really can’t see it happening and it shouldn’t be allowed to act as a smokescreen for the mediocrity (at best) we’ve had to pay to endure to date.

Whenever I write an article like this I try and finish on something a little different but it’s hard this week, very hard. We’re on a run of poor form as bad as my, admittedly aging, memory can remember with little sign of a way out so you’ll forgive me if I don’t finish on an upbeat note. Even Matt Carter’s first goal on Saturday night, as good as it was, is bittersweet. It was, undoubtedly a great goal but it’s left me feeling more frustrated than anything as we’ve had to wait this long before we saw any sign of what we were told by the club he could do. Too little too late? Probably, but I fear that the same thing could be said about anything the club could do, I just hope they don’t agree with me.

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