Paul Balm assesses where the Panthers are at this point in time
There’s something very wrong with the Nottingham Panthers. I appreciate that the last sentence won’t surprise you if you’re a fan of the Panthers, or any other team in the EIHL for that matter. You’d be wrong if you agreed with that first sentence though. There isn’t something wrong with the Nottingham Panthers, there are a whole load of things wrong with the club that I have followed for over 36 years now.
You have to be very careful writing an article like this. I’ll warn you now it contains a lot of moaning. It does contain moaning because I do think there are a lot of problems at the club from on the ice to the off-ice management but I know things could be a lot worse. These problems are only problems in comparison to the teams that we are told we are in competition with. Our situation pales into insignificance with other teams. I might not like what is happening at my club but I wouldn’t swap places with a Manchester Phoenix fan. I’m lucky, for all that it often feels like I’m not, to still have a team to moan about.
If there’s so much to cover you’ve got to ask yourself where to start. Let’s start with the one thing we all watch hockey for – the on ice product. Or rather just off the ice and down the tunnel in the treatment room. Why do Nottingham Panthers’ players get so many injuries? If it was one season it could be seen as bad luck, two then you’d hope that questions were being asked but Panthers have had four seasons blighted by injuries since they won the league. In that time the club has not, to my knowledge, employed the services of a strength and conditioning coach. That can’t be a coincidence can it? What’s the saying, failing to prepare is preparing to fail? Neil Black stated at last week’s Q & A that the team are looking into it. That’s good news, just too late.
One thing that other clubs do far better or at least far quicker than the Panthers is recruit players. How many games have Panthers played at least a player short this season? I wish I knew, I lost count some time around December. But what does the club do about it? You can’t say nothing because players like Kalus, Kudroc, Williams and latterly Sarkanis have all been brought in this season. Williams and Kudroc, had they stayed, could have made a real impact to the team but it just didn’t work out for Kalus and the jury is still out on Sarkanis. He looks pretty quick but I’ve yet to see any real end product. So if Panthers have at least brought some players in where is the problem? Put simply it’s two things. The first is the length of time it takes. The Panthers were at least a defenceman short for months at the start of the year and yet, with the exception of Kudroc, no replacement was forthcoming. The other problem is that Panthers fans were told that there was no one out there who fit what the coach was looking for and yet when Belfast lost Alex Foster to injury they signed Jerome Leduc, a defenceman with a great deal of AHL and ECHL experience within days. Walser saw where his team needed strengthening and made a decisive move, the sort of move that Corey Neilson doesn’t seem able or is not allowed to make. I have to wonder if it all comes down to a question of budget and fit is actually short for “fits within our price range”. I’ve little doubt that Sarkanis costs less in wages than Leduc, I’d be amazed if that wasn’t the case and the Panthers will play the rest of the season (if Dimmen’s recovery from a broken finger takes as long as predicted) a defenceman short because, as the club told the fans, there is no one out there.
I have to question where the Nottingham Panthers’ priorities lie both in this season and the ones that have gone before. There seems to be a lack of ambition that runs through the club from top to bottom. I know that might sound like a strange statement to make about the Continental Cup winners but I mean it. It has been fairly obvious throughout this season that the Continental Cup was the priority for the team and if that’s the case then that target has been well and truly met which is good, a least, for the team. But what if the Panthers had not won? Would the season have been a waste? I’m not sure it matters that much to the management. Panthers last three weekend home games, games that they had little or nothing to play for, had crowds around or above 6,000 each night. OK, the first was Sheffield and they always sell well but 6,000 plus against Coventry and just under for Belfast? Why bother to try harder? If they can keep bringing the crowds in when the quality of play from the home team is so poor, and trust me, at times it has been poor this year, then why bother trying to find better, more expensive players? A big crowd doesn’t necessarily make for a happy crowd but it does make for happy owners.
I think the worse thing, for me, is the way the club try and massage the truth to make things look better than they are. Right now Panthers have got 48 points from 43 games, they’re playing just above .500 hockey. For a team that we are constantly told are unlucky, didn’t get the bounces, were tired (I’ll come back to that) that’s pretty damning. We’ve heard every excuse under the sun, Panthers may never have blamed Diana Ross but they’ve blamed the crease paint being too sticky and everything else they could think of including being tired. Well, I’m sorry but by entering the Continental Cup the team knew that there would, potentially, be three weekends worth of games that would need to be made up so maybe they should have signed a strength and conditioning coach.
I’m going round in circles here, like the club!
Where do we go from here? Sadly, I think that without any kind of regime change then the Panthers won’t be going anywhere any time soon. The club needs a shake up from the bottom to the top. There needs to be a commitment to excellence throughout the club that just isn’t there at the moment. The coach needs to be placed at the centre of the organisation and given the ability to be the most important person at the club. The Nottingham Panthers should be an ice hockey club not a country club or a show for the cash cows and the sponsors. Without that commitment they will continue to stagnate.
I said at the start of this that you have to be careful when you’re writing an article like this because. What I’ve said above could sound like a club in complete turmoil, a club that didn’t win the league five seasons ago or that hasn’t won numerous trophies over the last few years. I know some of you will be reading this, if you’re still reading this, and thinking that I don’t know when I’m well off. I understand that it sounds like I’m whining about something that a lot of teams can only dream of. You have to believe me when I say that I’m not. I’ve seen enough poor seasons to enjoy the good ones and when I look at the club that I have loved for so long I see a rot beneath the surface that threatens to bring it down. It’s not just a case of a bad season, it’s deeper than that.