What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?


With the fortunes of the Panthers on-ice so far falling short of the off-ice promise that has been shown so far, Adam muses on the current situation.

It’s true. Rome really wasn’t built in a day.

For all the seismic off-ice changes that have put smiles back onto the faces of Nottingham Panthers fans, progress on the other side of the plexiglass hasn’t been nearly quite as eye catching. Six games in and the club already find themselves nine points adrift of surprise pacesetters Guildford Flames. Not quite the start that optimistic fans envisaged after the high-profile organisation reboot undertaken in the aftermath of a dismal 2021-22 campaign.

However, being realistic then it’s doubtful anyone other than those wearing the most rose-tinted of glasses would have expected the Panthers to launch a serious tilt at the league title this year. The gap that’s emerged between Nottingham and the heavy hitters of Sheffield, Cardiff and Belfast has grown to canyon-like proportions over recent seasons, so expecting four or five years of organisational and on-ice decline to be wiped out in the space of a few months was always going to be the toughest of asks.
But despite fans cutting the club some slack whilst CEO Omar Pacha presides over a large-scale rebuilding operation, reserves of patience are not limitless. Not in Nottingham, not anywhere.

Fans remain scarred from having to tolerate a succession of uncompetitive Panthers teams across recent years. So, whether it’s fair or not, the craving for instant success that’s now so emblematic in professional sport is as strong as it’s ever been. After all, hockey is a results-driven industry, and a stack of losses will always bring consequences one way or another.
Happily though, a transformation in fan relations and the club has created a far more positive (and dare I say tolerant?) environment around the entire organisation. Gone are the regular media and communications own goals needlessly inflicted upon itself and the professionalism being shown by the Panthers off the ice continues to be refreshing. However, it’s inevitable that much of the goodwill the club’s efforts have created will quickly be lost if fortunes on the ice do not turn around soon.

One look at the current standings clearly shows where the on-ice problems exist. Goals. And nowhere near enough of them. 

Our woes in front of net is a strange situation when you consider some the personnel at Gary Graham’s disposal. It’s certainly an issue worthy of further examination.

The signings of Mike Hammond and Adam Brady at last saw two genuine goal scorers on the roster. One of the main criticisms of last season was the laboured, one-dimensional nature of Panthers offence – so having two snipers on board was a major tick in the recruitment box.
Although if fans were expecting fireworks, and we’re now nearly at that time of year, what they’ve been treated to so far perhaps is more synonymous with a malfunctioning sparkler. Remove the six goals fired past Dundee’s netminder Anton Svensson in the recent 6-2 home win and Panthers have notched a rather anaemic amount of goals. Throwing in the Challenge Cup games does little to generate any upsurge in potency either.

But goalscoring responsibilities shouldn’t fall solely upon the shoulders of those Gary Graham has decided to entrust to form two-thirds of his first line during several early season games. As well as the obvious talents of Brady and Hammond, much was expected from other new forwards arriving at the Motorpoint Arena. When GB international Luke Ferrara decided to depart the Blaze and make Nottingham his new home over the summer it was considered a real coup, sadly though the wait for Ferrara to notch his first point for the club continues, whilst another guy who’s posted respectable numbers throughout his career, Stephen Anderson, has only managed a couple of assists from his first nine games. It doesn’t feel particularly great to pick out two individuals here as fans will surely be rooting for these two, and the others who are struggling, to start upping their productivity soon – whether it be in the form of assists or goals.

Amongst the early season difficulties, it feels right to give Jeremy Welsh a namecheck here. Welsh’s scale of contribution last year was difficult to gauge largely as a result of how forgettable everything about the season was. Even finishing 2021-22 as the club’s top points scorer, there were several occasions where it seemed he had another gear to find. It’s somewhat of a blessing then that whilst those around him have so far struggled to catch fire, Welsh has started off 2022-23 in blistering form. If he can maintain the same sort of performance when his fellow forwards finally get up to speed, then there should be a surge in the team’s offensive threat.
Jeremy Welsh aside, how can more be extracted out of our misfiring forward lines?

Well in my opinion it’s simple. Go and recruit a power forward. Or even better, two!

The unfortunate exit of Garett Hunt back to the KHL before he’d even skated on Nottingham ice was undoubtedly a blow to Gary Graham’s plans. I for one was disappointed with not getting the chance to see Hunt play. Whilst not big in height, watching his extensive YouTube highlights reel showed what he lacks in that department he certainly makes up for in heart and desire. Not only does he have a long and impressive fight card, but it was noticeable how he scores all kinds of goals. What really was evident was his ability to regularly capitalise on giveaways or force turnovers by winning puck battles before going on to create his own scoring opportunities.

It’s a player with this DNA and offensive traits who Panthers badly miss and have done for a long while and this oversight is peculiar because Gary Graham communicated to fans not long after his arrival that he wanted to embrace a much more physical, ‘in-your-face’ brand of hockey. Soothing words for those who’d become fed up with the recent attritional and passing orientated style. The untimely loss of Hunt did present an opportunity to recruit a like-for-like replacement, but, for whatever reason, that was missed. The set of forwards Graham now has at his disposal, perhaps with the exception of tireless workhorses Matthew Myers and Jordan Kelsall, have failed to set a particularly physical and aggressive tone in games. Even with Mathieu Gagnon back patrolling the blue line, his previous misdemeanours in the Elite League for us and other clubs makes him a marked man by officials.
A big body amongst the forward lines really is vital if we’re going to stop conceding the physical advantage to teams, both on home and road ice.

Fans have repeatedly said, both from their seats and even more vocally on social media, that we’re missing the presence of a forward who can create fear and disruption. They’re absolutely right. Our home ice has become too easy a place to come and win board battles and dig pucks out the corners. If Panthers are to rise up the standings then a shift in thinking around recruitment is vital to start infusing the undoubted talent on those forward lines with some good old-fashioned physicality. Whilst it’s somewhat of a cliché, sides should dread coming to our building, but it’s become all too easy for visitors to skate away with wins and not pay any sort of physical price. That must change.

Maybe this season on the ice is just one long extended experiment. I don’t know. Perhaps a case of trial and error to see what works and whether these forwards (and defencemen) are able to play a style of hockey that Gary Graham wants to adopt as his blueprint. Only time will tell. If that’s the case then fans need to majorly buy-in and exercise a truckload of patience to trust the rebuild process.

Rather than struggling on, it does feel like there’s another way. So, if Panthers want to capitalise on their returning supporters’ loyalty, then the addition of a forward or two who can throw that crunching check, execute a fierce mid-ice hit or drop the gloves to give the team a spark and change a game’s momentum, will really help take the atmosphere in the building to another level. Not only will seeing these things energise the crowd, but slotting in a physical forward onto a line with more finessed guys should give those high-calibre players the time, space and confidence to do what they’re best at doing and start exerting their influence on a game.

It’s fair to say the disjointed nature of play fans have seen in the offensive zone so far this season has been frustrating to watch. A point not lost on Gary Graham who has already challenged some forwards to give more.
It’s a conundrum because there clearly is talent on these forward lines. But it’s also clear there’s a couple of missing jigsaw pieces which if filled would make a big difference to harnessing the potential of what’s already in place. If further additions were made then a legitimate (and with import restrictions, a necessary) question to ask is who would make way. It’s an incredibly tough one to answer. We’ve all seen that sport is often a cruel world and sometimes people are sacrificed for the greater good of a team regardless of whether they deserve to be axed or not.

A metric often used by fans to assess the overall contribution of a player is effort. However, every player currently wearing a Panthers jersey is skating hard for the cause – so work rate and commitment is most definitely not a factor which might jeopardise someone’s place on the roster. Of course, all fans are desperately hoping for a quick turnaround in fortunes over the upcoming triple header weekend against Stars and Storm. But if the lack of goals and wins persist then Gary Graham will be left with some big questions to answer over his continued loyalty to those under his charge.

Good luck finding the solutions Coach!

%d bloggers like this: