It’s been a big week for the Panthers with the departure of one coach and the quick installation of another, the latter being a familiar face. Adam offers his opinion on the departure of Gary Graham and the return of Corey Neilson.
You spend hours writing an article evaluating the pros and cons of whether Gary Graham should remain in his increasingly under-fire position, only to see all the hard work vanish in the space of an official Tweet from the Nottingham Panthers early on Tuesday morning.
Okay. Perhaps with a bit of creative editing then I could get away with giving the original article a small makeover and maybe turn it into some sort of retrospective piece taking a look back over Graham’s time as Panthers Head Coach. At least that way some of the content could’ve been salvaged.
But then another bombshell dropped. And that really was terminal for the original article. The return of Corey Neilson.
So, time to rip everything up and start all over again. Which upon further reflection could well be an appropriate metaphor for what Panthers fans have seen happen at the club this week.
However, before the focus justifiably turns to the new (old?) messiah, it is worth a brief contemplation of Gary Graham’s four months in charge. Fair enough, there wouldn’t be a whole heap of material if anyone was tasked to go all Big Brother and run a compilation of his best bits – but for what it’s worth, I certainly felt there was significant promise at the outset of his all too short tenure.
The brutal facts of it all is that a Head Coach lives and dies by the results they achieve. With the strong words and promise of a grittier, more blue-collar style of hockey, Graham needed to back up the talk with action. The manner in which he introduced his vision to disillusioned Panthers fans certainly had me fully invested in what the future might hold.
Sadly though, he couldn’t deliver on his own radical manifesto for change.
Whatever you think of Gary Graham as a person, and one glance at Panthers Social Media platforms certainly reveals a wide spectrum of views, the fact that he couldn’t give fans what he’d whetted their appetites with upon his appointment is a big shame. Not only a big shame for Graham, but also a huge shame for an organisation desperate to back up the seismic off-ice progress with a stellar on-ice product and some much sought-after stability in player and coaching personnel.
However, it was clear action was needed to resuscitate a Panthers season that was flatlining.
Languishing in sixth place, and already a ridiculously distant 18 points off the league’s summit with less than a third of the season played, the statistics made for grim reading. And there were too many false dawns raising expectations that the team had finally turned a corner. For every entertaining win against Cardiff and Belfast, there were lacklustre, soul-destroying defeats to Fife, Manchester and Dundee.
And that for me was what finally did for our now ex-Head Coach – an incredible lack of any meaningful consistency to prove to the owner, CEO and fans alike that tangible progress was being made. Yes, other factors, which were the source of many online rumours about the rapport (or lack of) between players and Graham, were probably just as influential in sealing his fate – but it’s a results driven industry and just 6 regulation wins across 23 league and cup games was a return that was never going to keep the wolves away from the door for too much longer.
So as Gary Graham makes a very Rich Chernomaz-esque departure, we wish him well for the future.
But what of the post-Graham world?
Contemplating what might happen in the days and weeks ahead, and slightly fearful given the club doesn’t even have an assistant coach behind the Panthers bench left to run things, I certainly wasn’t expecting the news that dropped late in Tuesday’s lunch hour. Corey’s back? Really? No way.
Normally in response to big announcements, I like to quickly gauge the temperature of initial views from fans from all the usual online sources. But this one felt a little different to others. It was like I needed to indulge in a bit of quiet reflection. You see, Corey Neilson gave me (and I daresay most readers of this) the most incredible set of memories as a Panthers supporter so it was a shock to try and process news of his return.
As a football fan, I’ve seen all too often club legends return to the scene of their greatest sporting triumphs and quickly see their legacy diminished – normally after making the transition from player to manager. Would I really want to see Corey return to a place where he was responsible for so much success and run the risk of seeing some of his hard-won reputation vanish if things didn’t work out second time around?
It’s a tough one to call, but after a few hours of mulling over whether bringing Neilson back was a good or a bad move on the club’s part, I reached the conclusion that his appointment – albeit just until the end of the 2022-23 season – could turn out to be a great move for both parties. There are good reasons to think this. Most importantly, with a clear and deep affinity for both the organisation and the city, Corey Neilson probably wants to get his coaching career back on track in a place he feels comfortable.
Since leaving Nottingham, Neilson has broadened his horizons with spells at Lausitzer in DEL2, Manglerud of Norway, HK Poprad in Slovakia before returning for a brief stint at Kassel back in Germany’s second tier. Combined with his involvement as an Assistant Coach within the Great Britain set-up, it would be fair to say that Neilson’s hockey acumen has been enhanced as a result of the different settings and environments he has coached in. And that could well work to Panthers benefit.
A more extensive contacts book (always useful when it comes to recruitment!), whilst being immersed in contrasting styles of hockey, should see the new Panthers Head Coach a much wiser individual for his travels.
However, all the wisdom gained from hopping around mainland Europe’s hockey scene will not prove much immediate use in trying to energise an underperforming roster inherited from Gary Graham. Clearly something was not right in that regard. Whilst the roster, Gagnon aside, lacks notable physicality and strength, no one can argue that it doesn’t contain most of the necessary offensive skill and personnel which should see the Panthers displaying far greater competitiveness and be placed higher in the standings.
The huge challenge Neilson will face over the next few games is to extract more from this group of players.
No one area of the ice can be spared the blame of underperforming either. The D is too leaky, whilst the forwards simply aren’t lighting the lamp enough. Netminding remains a question mark too with Graham’s #1 Alex Dubeau possessing a rather short in-game fuse, although Jack Berry has acquitted himself well when called upon.
It’s reassuring though that despite many of those coached by Neilson in Nottingham have now either moved on or retired, there are still some on the roster who’ll be familiar with his calmer, more reserved style of coaching – a far cry to the more brash and abrasive approach employed by Gary Graham. Matthew Myers will certainly not be a stranger and is likely to relish the chance to team up with a man who first made him an alternate captain back in the 2008-09 season. And then there’s the Great Britain link too, both Mike Hammond and Luke Ferrara have spent considerable time around Neilson in training camps and World Championships and would no doubt benefit from a friendly face. If Neilson can restore some confidence to Ferrara’s all-round game then the roster and its offensive production will be all the better for it.
Another tick in the box that comes with Neilson is the willingness to place his faith in youth – something that Omar Pacha has also been keen to address by building stronger links between the Panthers and the Nottingham junior hockey programme.
Examples of Neilson’s ability to nurture junior hockey talent are far too numerous to list here, but it’s telling how many former young Brits who have started their careers in Nottingham during his long reign as Head Coach speak so appreciably of Neilson’s influence in their hockey upbringing. This should be good news for Archie Hazeldine and Jack Hopkins in particular; two extremely talented individuals who in my opinion ought to be playing more enhanced roles in this season’s roster.
However, it won’t be plain sailing for the new Head Coach.
Regardless of the positives offered by the return of the club’s most winningest Head Coach, on the evidence of what supporters have seen so far this season, Neilson has a tough task turning around a team who have badly struggled to forge any sort of positive identity for themselves. Amongst other shortcomings, players are clearly devoid of confidence.
But it’s unlikely that Neilson will enter the locker room and start throwing the crockery around to get a reaction. He’s not that sort of guy.
A more measured, professional approach to coaxing the best out of these players is absolutely what’s needed. Whatever Neilson thinks about particular players or performances in general, he has shown over his coaching career that he is savvy enough to keep such views private and well away from the camera. It was clear that Gary Graham, the epitome of a heart-on-sleeve individual, let his passions run high (sometimes too high) when interviewed. Some of the views expressed in the aftermath of a defeat, whilst probably agreed with by fans, was not the way to keep a locker room onside and engender a positive mood amongst players.
A more tactful, diplomatic way to coach the current roster will, in my view, see players treated as adults, which in turn should give each member of the roster more freedom and confidence to express themselves during games.
I’m not going to lie, I’m quite excited by what we may see for the remaining two-thirds of the season. It could be a whole lot of fun.
So while others around the EIHL may look in and wonder what the hell is going on in Nottingham, most of a Black and Gold persuasion had come to the realisation that changes needed to be made and Omar Pacha has duly acted – perhaps not quite as decisively as some in the fanbase would’ve liked, but he’s still made a big call to ditch a Head Coach so soon into his time as Panthers CEO. For that he deserves some credit as he’d probably staked quite a lot on Gary Graham being the transformative Head Coach the club badly needed.
Anyway, a big welcome back Corey and I wish you the very best of luck in salvaging something from the wreckage of this season. Let’s be positive – with his trophy-winning credentials and the Challenge Cup and Play-Offs still left to play for, it’ll be fascinating to see how the second coming of a man whose name hangs from the NIC’s rafters works out.
Who knows, this year may yet prove not to be the write-off we all thought it was well on the road to becoming.