Fresh off the back of a 4-1 midweek win over Milton Keynes Lightning, and accumulating a very handy 9 from the last 10 points available from EIHL action, you might think now was a time for positivity with hope that Nottingham Panthers were finally getting themselves sorted and back into title contention. Unfortunately, I’m struggling to buy-in to such enthusiasm for a number of reasons which I’ll go on to explain.
Listeners to the Cats Whiskers podcast will have heard me repeatedly mention how concerned I am at the lack of goals this group of guys appear to have in them. A telling stat, and one I can claim no credit for, showed Panthers lighting the red lamp a paltry 24 times over the last 10 matches with only Dundee (experiencing a rather dramatic slump) faring worse. Some may argue a lack of goals doesn’t matter a great deal when the side keeps winning. I hear that, and yes, it’s an argument not totally without merit. However, the alarming lack of firepower from a worrying number of Panthers forwards is a factor which if not addressed, is likely to consign Nottingham to yet another season without a league title.
So what’s gone wrong and why is our offensive game seemingly falling of a cliff? Well, if I knew that I’d be a pro hockey coach. Alternatively, I can offer a few observations through which may explain why we’ve become so toothless of late.
An analysis of last night’s game (I don’t have a DVD recording of it, so I’m working from memory here!) once again demonstrated a startling lack of cohesion in our forwards general play. This has characterised many of Panthers performances over the aforementioned ten-game stretch. You analyse one game, you’ve analysed all ten as far as I’m concerned. Sloppy passing, guys moving across the skating lanes of their line-mates on the rush, repeatedly bumping into each other when trying to make a play etc. Also, how many times do you see our forwards having to take a touch of the puck before getting a shot away? You could argue that’s because the quality of feed is sub-standard, but the inability of guys to fire a one-timer means netminders are afforded that crucial extra second to better position themselves to make the save. I could go on, but the positional element of our forwards play in particular is symptomatic of why insufficient offence is being generated – a far cry from those early weeks of the season where you fancied our chances of scoring every time someone carried the puck over the opponent’s blue-line.
It’s thinking back to those early weeks of the season which perhaps help us to better understand why the goals tally has taken a rather lean appearance. The ‘new coach’ factor undoubtedly made a significant contribution to this, with Rich Chernomaz implementing different systems to the rather tired and stale ones used during 2017-18 (and arguably for a while before that too). For a few weeks, a Neilson-less Panthers were an unknown quantity to the rest of the EIHL and the first ten competitive games (League & Challenge Cup) returned a rather healthy 35 goals. We even had what looked like a half-decent powerplay! Not only were NIC goal judges now more active, but the intensity to the all-round play around the opponents net made a notable return after a few seasons of general lethargy. Things were looking up, but even during this time our forwards, with perhaps the exception of Kovacs (the early EIHL points leader) and Guptill, were failing to test opposing netminders enough and it was left to useful contributions from our D to help get us over the line and pick up the wins.
Despite our forwards lack of firepower, being top of the league was welcome; albeit rather false on account of how many additional games Panthers had played compared to everyone else. Of course, there was no need to even contemplate roster changes as things were progressing nicely. But then the dreadful MK away defeat (1-5) occurred and from that moment it felt the goals really did start to dry up. The Chernomaz ‘bubble’ had well and truly burst, the intensity largely vanished and the games got, well, quite boring if truth be told.
Most fans agreed something needed to happen. The benching of top scorer Guptill for not buying into the Coach’s game plan was somewhat mystifying though. Yes #27 is occasionally lazy and often guilty of trying to do too much by himself. But when you look at the alarming lack of goals from his import forward colleagues then can you really blame the guy for wanting to take matters into his own hands? Jacob Doty’s departure wasn’t a huge surprise. Increasingly marginalised in a side going through a rough spell of results, Doty wasn’t even able to exert his toughness on opposition teams, making his exit predictable. Lets be honest here though, I don’t think even the most fanatical Panthers fan expected goals from him, so his loss was never going to address the issue of where goals would come from.
As it is, Coach Chernomaz feels a second import netminder is of more pressing concern than the lack of goals coming from our import forwards. I disagree. Whilst Garnett is no spring chicken, he’s arguably in the form of his Panthers career right now. To chop and change a hot starting netminder is perplexing, regardless of a congested fixture schedule throughout December. Anyway, that’s a whole other issue. Getting back to the main topic of this article, I thought I’d take a closer look at the productivity of forwards who have featured over the majority of the last ten games. It doesn’t make for particularly pleasant viewing, but here you go:
Not great reading, and if you extrapolate those points over a 60 game season, you get the numbers on the right of the table. Again, not much cause for optimism there either.
So what does Chernomaz do to wring more goals out of his misfiring forwards? The obvious decision would be to wield the axe and make the other guys sit up and take notice. There’s a strong case for any of Kovacs, Hurtubise or Biggs to be released given their ongoing lack of productivity. But would dropping a more natural goalscorer similar in style to Guptill into the line-up make much difference? Chernomaz has already shown that he’s not a fan of seeing his most offensive forward neglect defensive duties, so it’s unlikely we’ll see a Guptill Mk II appear anytime soon. Jon Rheault is due to be back in the New Year, but will that be too late to stay on the coat-tails of Belfast and Cardiff? While he’s played in far better leagues than the EIHL, a look at a his hockey CV shows he’s never been remotely close to that elusive goal-a-game forward we’ve missed since David Alexandre-Beauregard – even in his junior days. Today’s release of Tyler VanKleef fits broadly into the same category as that of Doty’s departure. No one expected goals from VanKleef, but the lack of ruthlessness from those higher profile former colleagues seems to have oddly led to the release of a guy who never took a shift off.
So in comes Dylan Richard, the latest addition to the Panthers roster. Whilst I’m happy to see Chernomaz continue to work to find the right mix, one look at Richard’s 2018-19 goalscoring acumen is only likely to deflate hopes of those like myself who’d rather us to sign someone capable of notching 30+ goals a season. Four goals in 24 games for Slovakian outfit HK Nitra is rather underwhelming (in addition to a lack of senior experience), but let’s see how things work out.
My conclusion is that the buck rests with the Head Coach over this one. He needs to quickly work out a style of hockey which suits the players he has and generates greater offensive capability. The hard-hitting brand promised by Chernomaz at the start of his tenure understandably excited the fan base who’d become accustomed to a more passive style, but after a few weeks of high intensity action even this has largely vanished from view.
I’m sure this season has been a steep learning curve for Rich Chernomaz and next year, should he be here, he’ll have far more intelligence to fall back on about the league and the type of player best-suited to executing his ‘brand’ of hockey. The problem for him though is some (but sadly not enough) Nottingham fans are desperate for another league title and are growing ever-impatient. Quite frankly though, with a set of forwards we have at our disposal, i’d be astonished if they carried us to a Elite League winners crown come season’s end.