As the lengthy summer recruitment process draws to a close, I can’t help but feel somewhat underwhelmed by the Panthers roster that has been tasked with mounting a league title challenge in 2016/17. Having fallen far short in the league standings last year, it was interesting that Corey wasted no time in re-signing many of last season’s roster. Some will say that our relatively lowly finish – 5th, 10 points behind champions Sheffield – was exaggerated by injuries to key players along with the management’s failure to bring in timely replacements. All teams experience injuries/suspensions at one time or another however, and if we’re being honest, we were never close, consistently losing games in the final run in, even with an inflated roster at that time.
With 7 of last season’s imports signed up for the new campaign, it could be argued that it is many of those that have departed that actually made more of an impression in black and gold and I’m sure if Corey had had his way, they’d have been snapped up too. Mosey was outstanding throughout the year and his turn of pace and ability to create chances out of nothing will be a huge loss. Obviously, however he was presented with an opportunity too good to refuse and we all hope that he is able to do the EIHL proud as he tries to break into the big American leagues. Fellow forwards Kolnik and Bombach, both class acts – although the former showed greater consistency throughout the year – have also decided to move on, along with defencemen Schmidt and late arrivals Macdonald and Quick, all of whom performed admirably at the back end. The fans reaction on social media to the loss of Cam Janssen says it all.
Of those that remain, numerous question marks surround them. Schultz never quite looked as dangerous following his dreadful early season injury, Dimmen struggled for fitness despite proving solid when on the ice and the sheer volume of games expected from Miika Wiikman proved too much of a strain on his body last time out. In my opinion, Miika was the league’s number one goalie when fit but can he last the course without his body breaking down? Waugh, was disappointing last season despite improving in the playoffs. I like my defencemen in the Mike Rees/Eric Charron mould and for all his size I don’t think he was the dominant force that I’d hoped for. Perhaps he may have been one that Corey would have offloaded this summer if it weren’t for the restrictions caused by his uni course. Similarly Moran, although undoubtedly a quality player with an excellent understanding of the game, didn’t really have the game changing impact that I’d anticipated from a player of his calibre and I expect more from him next season. Logan MacMillan performs his role brilliantly but can’t be expected to put up big numbers.
The one import returnee not yet mentioned is the man that Corey, surprisingly, seems to have built much of the forward recruitment around – the mercurial Chris Lawrence. Larry, as he is affectionately known by the Panthers’ faithful, eventually found a home in Nottingham having been relieved of his services by both Coventry and Sheffield in 2015/16 and it was a different Chris Lawrence to the player that led team scoring for the Panthers in the previous year. More gritty and hard working, I was actually more impressed with Larry v.2, although this change in role unsurprisingly led to a marked decrease in points scoring. The first of his buddies to put pen to paper, Jeff Brown, posted a fairly average 0.5 ppg in two seasons in the East Coast and is likely to be relied upon for his energy and tenacity rather than his points scoring. To use a university place on what, in my opinion, seems to be a fairly run of the mill signing is strange to say the least. The third member of the clan, Matt Carter, put up good numbers in an average French league over the last two seasons but didn’t set the world alight in the East Coast in the preceding years. Late summer signing, Alex Nikiforuk looks to be a top player having scored highly – particularly in the assist’s column – for the majority of his career. Much will be expected, and required from him if Panthers are to challenge next season.
On D, Corey certainly seems to have more adequately replaced the summer departures with some real quality. Spang, Sertich and Lindhagen have some top clubs on their resumes and should perform well in this league, although it remains unclear in which position the latter will actually play. My main concern here is a lack of balance. Following the positive impact made at the end of last season by mobile defencemen Quick and Macdonald, Corey seems to have over compensated in his attempts to replicate this model; the three newcomers, Dimmen and arguably Lee – he assisted on 23 goals last season – all have offensive tendencies. Given our potential lack of firepower up front, on the one hand it’s pleasing that the D seem capable of lending a hand, but where are the big, mean blue-liners that will have the opposition’s skilled guys watching their backs? The ‘get out of my goalie’s crease or I’ll take your head off’ type defencemen? This, I feel, is a glaring oversight in terms of our recruitment and has created a clear weakness from the off.
Such roster concerns aren’t only consigned to the imports. Panthers undoubtedly possess one of the most impressive Brit packs in the league, however it is high time that certain members of the crop started performing as such. Last season, Lachowicz scored 41 points less than in 2013/14 and 24 points less than in 2014/15 and at times, it was unclear how he warranted the ice time that he was awarded. Secondary scoring from the likes of Lacho will be more important than ever next season and Corey must find a way to get the best out of him. Similarly, Farmer’s role on the checking line last season, whilst effective, saw his points tally more than halve from that of the previous season. Is this the best use of his offensive talent? I would suggest that with MacMillan, Brown, Betteridge and a possible 4th line fighter/hitter to come, Corey should think carefully about how to utilise Farms more effectively. Clarke isn’t getting any younger and the loss of Myers and all the qualities that he brings to the team is huge – big shoes to fill for young Ollie Betteridge.
On defence, Lee, in my view, has been too inconsistent over the last two years and he certainly doesn’t instill great confidence when on the ice. It could be argued that his performances have gone downhill since Corey began ‘developing him’ into a more offensive, mobile defenceman. With the players that we have on D, it may be the right time to scrap that plan and allow Stevie to once again play a more simple, defensive game. On the other hand, I was impressed with Oakford last year and although no longer a young man, he seems to have really come on since arriving in Nottingham. At times, I thought he could have felt a little bit hard done by for not receiving more ice time, particularly in the run in, and I hope Corey has the faith in him next season to allow him to progress further.
That a coach as experienced as Corey continues to leave gaps in his recruitment is a source of great frustration. Last year we lacked a genuine sniper and a points scoring (Corey Neilson-esque) defenceman. The season before (the CHL season) we had no team toughness, not to mention a glaring lack of quality throughout the roster. This year we seem to have an over abundance of gritty, grinding forwards without much in terms of point scorers – more specifically, goal getters. In addition, our D, although brimming with quality, seems one-dimensional. Surely it can’t be that difficult to tick the boxes to ensure that all of the required team attributes are covered, and that the right mix of offence and defence exists within both the forwards and the D?
I am aware that hockey is not played on paper and that, in reality, players will perform better/worse than expected and will demonstrate qualities/deficiencies, which their stats may not reveal. Unfortunately, at this stage however, I find it hard to make an argument for this roster being an upgrade on last season’s crop, or superior to 3 or 4 of the rosters assembled around the league.
On the 15th March 2013, Matt Francis fired into the empty net to end a 56-year wait for a league championship, sparking wild celebrations in Belfast. Sadly, I will be stunned if there is a repeat of such scenes in 7 months time.