Prior to the Panthers most recent signing being announced, Adam put virtual pen to paper to collect some thoughts on the Panthers current status in the chase for silverware, just the other side of the half way point of the season.
So now the dust has settled on the frenzied holiday schedule of hockey, it’s worth perhaps taking a look at what the remainder of the 2022-23 Elite League season might hold in store for the Nottingham Panthers and, dare I say, its long-suffering fans.
Firstly though, lets recap briefly on the hockey played over the festive and New Year period and let’s face it, there were no great surprises or shocks in how the fixtures panned out. Of course, the two defeats in the now traditional pair of Christmas games against the Sheffield Steelers were about as predictable as the age-old argument resurfacing over whether Die Hard is actually a Christmas film or not (and of course, the answer is emphatically yes).
Fans still crying into their eggnog after the two Steelers losses were afforded some cheer though with entertaining encounters against the Coventry Blaze each side of New Year’s Day. The team should be given credit for showing some character to fight back well from a 1-4 deficit to overcome Blaze 6-4 at the NIC and send Panthers fans off to their NYE parties (or in my case, home to their sickbed) with a smile on their face. Ironically given the state of my health that day, there was a rare feelgood factor about the atmosphere in the arena which cannot be said for many home games this season. The follow-up Bank Holiday defeat to Blaze was a difficult one to stomach – especially as Panthers were competing well until the usual case of untimely, unforced errors which helped seal a home win to avenge the NYE loss.
However, despite the welcome big crowds and high levels of wider interest in hockey the holiday games bring, with the way Panthers have spectacularly blown-up in their league campaign, it was surely the case that the most vital recent fixture to help sustain continued interest in the season was the second leg of the Challenge Cup Quarter Final fixture over in Belfast.
Going into that game with a hard-earned, but slender one-goal advantage from the first leg meant the outcome was in the balance. Progression to the semi-final looked on when a one-goal advantage rather unexpectedly and unbelievably became three during the first period. But reflective of the season as a whole, when things appeared way too good to be true, Giants applied the afterburners and blew the visitors away, with their talented set of forwards proving far too much for a still weakened and experimental Panthers D to contain.
With the league position remaining in a rather sorry state and the exit from the Challenge Cup removing yet another path to possible silverware, the very real danger now is that the season enters a form of drift mode and simply fizzles and fades out.
This all seems a very far cry from the excitement and buzz created when a new CEO and Head Coach took up their positions prior to the start of the current season. Previous TCW articles have considered in depth the various bumps in the road faced so far, ultimately leading to now being in a position where Panthers find themselves a massive 21 points back from the league leaders and only 10 points off the bottom of the standings. This surely can’t have been what CEO Omar Pacha had in mind when the ‘reboot’ of on and off-ice operations was unveiled to the Panthersnation. I’m not a stats person, but have Panthers ever been in such a poor position after 30 games of a league season during the EIHL era?
Despite such a disappointing campaign, it’s probably not particularly constructive to go over old ground and discuss some of the decisions made – particularly with regards to the way in which the current roster was assembled, coached and managed by Gary Graham. What has gone has gone, so let’s instead try and look forwards.
So how do the club avoid the drift and inertia that it’s perilously close to flirting with at the moment?
Well firstly, it’s worth highlighting that in my opinion Corey Neilson is not at fault for the on-ice failings that have blighted the Panthers season. Whilst an upturn of results and points have not materialised in the way everyone would have hoped or liked since his return, Neilson in my view has ensured that performance levels have at least improved slightly. Okay, it’s the smallest of small ‘wins’, but it has started to steer the team away from one of the most annoying aspects of Gary Graham’s time as Head Coach which saw him unable to coax any consistency from the higher-profile players on the roster.
But putting aside Graham’s rather disastrous spell in Nottingham, what now can Corey Neilson do to start collecting more league points and put a few smiles back on the faces of fans?
Well one thing is clear, and that’s Neilson needs some help from above him in the organisation to be given the opportunity to make a few roster changes. It’s not particularly productive to start throwing names out there for who should be shown the door, and fans will have their own opinions and views insofar as to who has performed and who hasn’t this season. Sadly though, most of the roster at one point or another have probably come in for criticism for what they have, or more to the point, what they haven’t delivered. It’s just been one of those years.
With the league long gone and the Challenge Cup now out of reach, some might argue what the point actually is in making changes to help freshen up the roster. Look, I appreciate the logic of that argument, but for me it would be badly failing the thousands of fans who’ve massively bought in and fully backed the club’s reboot if they felt the Panthers management were being complacent about allowing a continuation of an underwhelming season to draw to a tame end.
One aspect of where it seems the club appear to have been slow to react to circumstances is in how it’s gone about attempting to plug gaps in its D caused by injuries to Craig Moore and Dougie Lagrone. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Jordan Kelsall has switched so seamlessly from forward to D is to be applauded and it’s clear that Neilson, the man responsible for Mark Richardson’s identical conversion into one of GB’s best and most consistent D-men, sees potential for a possible permanent switch. However, for a Head Coach to be forced into conducting such an experiment mid-season (despite it providing fans an excellent analytical insight into some of the main factors this involves on Panthers social media platforms) does beg questions of why the club haven’t sanctioned like-for-like replacements to make our D as strong as possible. An honourable shout out must also be made for Fabrizio Ricci who has also let nobody down in making the same shift back to the blue line as Kelsall.
Moving forwards, and whoever the new Head Coach may be when the 2023-24 season finally swings around, the club cannot find itself in a position again where it needs to take guys off forward lines to play D for any length of time. Fans would probably be tolerant if it occurred as a stop-gap for a couple of games (such as Brendan Connolly stepping back onto the D as an interim measure earlier this season for Sheffield), but it’s hard to think that any top-end Elite League side would have embarked on underinvesting in its D for as long as the Panthers have.
It’s abundantly clear that the season needs new on-ice impetus and that surely must involve new faces arriving at the club. Corey Neilson is undoubtedly an excellent coach who with more time would improve team performance levels and coax more individual productivity out of the players he currently has at his disposal. But this is in no way Neilson’s roster, so he needs to be able to imprint some of his own identity onto it. And even though there are a handful of players who he would’ve previously coached amongst the group, it’s obvious that the composition of the line-up is disjointed. Panthers neither have the personnel to play a hard and physical forechecking game, nor are the right players in place to adopt a more Scandinavian-style approach based on fast skating and quick transition out from the defensive zone. The lack of identifiable character contributes much to why the season has played out the way it has with such high levels of inconsistency.
A look at the league table (I know, it doesn’t make for easy reading) shows 24 league games remaining and for those of us like our current Prime Minister who love stats and the math, that amounts to 44% of the season – that’s a big chunk of season left. To accept things for what they currently are and persevere with a roster who are clearly working hard for their Head Coach, but struggling to pick up wins, would for me be a major disappointment and would inevitably lead to questions over the organisation’s overall ambition and desire to compete.
There is still one trophy left up for grabs though and that’s the Play-Offs, a trophy close to Corey Neilson and all Panthers fans hearts.
As things stand, and being realistic about what’s left of the league season, Panthers very best hopes would be to salvage a fifth-place finish. This would mean either we go on a blast and start winning a ton of games (yes please!) or involve the Blaze tanking and allowing us to catch and overtake them. The format of the Play-Offs is so rapid fire, blink and you’ve missed them, and it’s acknowledged that any side can get lucky given you only have to win three of four games to be crowned champions, but going into the Play-Offs hot and riding a wave of momentum does offer a stronger likelihood of being in with a shout of the trophy.
This is what Corey Neilson, his players and the fans should be laser focused on achieving this year, salvaging a forgettable season with a glorious finale, without understatement, would be a monumental effort considering what Neilson inherited back in late November. Could it happen? On balance, probably not with this current set of players (although I’d love to be proven wrong), but a couple of new recruits unburdened by the traumas and difficulties of Panthers disappointing season who might also be hungry to secure a contract for next season would surely be a major catalyst in mounting a strong push in what remains of this year.
So, in short, all hope is not lost. There may still be time to recover something from the 2022-23 season, talented players do exist on the roster, of that there is no doubt, guys like Brett Welychka, Mike Hammond and Jeremy Welsh have the ability to score heavily and #94 is certainly demonstrating that right now with 11 goals from his last 13 games. But our Head Coach, even though only confirmed as being here until the end of the current season, desperately needs to be backed by management if he feels replacements at both ends of the ice might give us a good shot at picking up some momentum through the back end and arriving at the Play-Offs as the side nobody want to face.
Even if Panthers ultimately fall short in their quest to pick up the final trophy of the season, the optimism that a strong end to the year would bring might just help convince sceptical fans that next year could be the one where the club’s on-ice fortunes finally do start to change for the better.