Could Nottingham Panther’s Coach, Corey Neilson, be drinking in the last chance saloon this season? Despite being the team’s most successful coach ever in terms of silverware, last season was frankly not much to write home about.
There is no denying that they broke new ground by winning the first ever European trophy for a British team, the Continental Cup. But domestically it was agonising to watch at times. The league ended with a drab mid-table position, they did not make the final for the Challenge Cup after being reigning champions for six out of eight years. The icing on the cake was being miserably put out of the play offs by old enemies the Sheffield Steelers, before even qualifying for the finals weekend.
Corey’s off-season quotes have been interesting and show a significant shift in his recruitment pattern from last season:
“We want guys who are young and hungry and able to do that every night”.
“Speed is a big priority. We’ve brought back guys, we’ve brought in guys who have that and obviously now we are continuing to add to that and get guys who can finish and do those things as well.”
“We’re going to have an exciting team as ever in a Panthers uniform this year”.
“…want to bring in an explosive and dynamic hockey club and with that sometimes comes a little bit of chaos and we need a good backbone if we get overly aggressive”.
“I may not have had a great summer of sleep or fun but maybe during the season, I won’t pull out whatever hair I have left.”
So who’s in or out of the 2017-18 roster so far?
Surprisingly, Miika Wiikman, starting netminder for the last two years, was released early in the off season by the club, which was a shock to him as well as the fan base. He was awarded “most valuable player” at the Panthers awards night and Corey Neilson stated that he considered him to be the “best goalie in the league”. But injuries may have been a factor, as he only played 41 games out of 52 league games last season and import netminder Henry Pacl played most of the Challenge Cup games. Wiikman was brutally put out of the last game of the season in a sickening collision with a Sheffield player, resulting in a knock out and Wiikman being stretchered to hospital in a neck brace, along with Panthers chances of making the play offs.
Brian McGrattan, age 35, solid enforcer and fighter, was signed up with a two year deal but over the summer announced that he would not be returning to the UK or hockey. He was a player of mixed form who dominated fights when he was needed, but his reputation ensured that not many players were keen to drop the gloves with him. He moved slowly around the ice, despite his previous experience in the NHL, but eventually scored 12 goals and accrued 19 points as the season went on. He was a hotly anticipated fan favourite when he signed, but the reality was far less exciting than he promised to be, so not leaving a huge gap in the team.
Captain Brad Moran and Geoff Waugh both retired following the successful completion of degrees at Loughborough University and both move on to pastures new outside of hockey.
Perhaps with the ending of last season in mind, Neilson has unusually signed three netminders, who all look solid on paper:
Michael Garnett, 6’1”, age 34, Canadian, last save percentage of 90.3 and played the last nine seasons in the KHL, top Russian league.
Eduard Zakharchenko, 6’1”, age 21, Ukrainian, last save percentage 94.3, young but very highly rated and has played for his national team.
Sam Gospel, 5’10”, age 23 from Nottingham, last save percentage of 91, joins us after playing three years in the EPL for Telford. Sam is from Wollaton and came through Nottingham’s junior programme. He steps into Dan Green’s skates, who was Panthers British back up netminder for the last seven years and has not been re-signed.
Tim Billingsley, 6’2”, age 27, Canadian, joins us after spending the last two seasons with the Brampton Beast, where previous fan favourite David Ling returned. Ling should probably have negotiated himself a finder’s fee, as he has recommended several players to Neilson, returner Jeff Brown included.
Mathieu Brisebois, 5’11”, age 25, Canadian, played last season with Amiens, France and has previously played in the AHL.
Mathieu Gagnon, 6’2”, age 24, Canadian tough man and described as a “ferocious competitor” who protects netminders. He joins us from the ECHL.
Joseph Hazeldine, 5’11”, age 16, GB (one of two new young British recruits, as required by a new league rule).
Joshua Tetlow, 6’6”, age 19, second of the young Brits, described by Neilson as “a monster of a young man” and “a project”.
Raphael Bussieres, 6’2”, age 23, Canadian, previously played in the Austrian, Slovenian and ECHL, described as a “rough and tumble power forward”.
Mark Derlago, 6’0”, age 31, Canadian sniper that can put up regular points and has played in the AHL, Denmark and Asia.
Jordan Kelsall, 5’9”, age 17, young Brit who played for Swindon in the EPL last season.
Alexander Mokshantsev, 6’1”, age 22, Russian and former junior international, playing in the KHL and VHL, likely to play on our fourth line.
Evan Mosey, 5’11”, age 28, GB/USA, a welcome re-signing after leaving Panthers for a year in the AHL. He played two seasons previously in Nottingham, is known for his speed and can play either defence or forward.
Zack Phillips, 6’0”, age 24, Canadian, played last season in Sweden and was a first round NHL pick by Minnesota in 2011.
Josh Shalla, 6’1”, age 25, Canadian, goal scorer who played in the ECHL last season.
Compared to last season, the squad is four years younger on average, staying with Neilson’s theme of “young and hungry”. He has one player still to sign and has said that he will not rush this as quality is more important.
Following the plethora of injuries in the last two seasons, Panthers have taken the positive and much-needed step of adding a strength and conditioning coach to the back room team, Pete Edwards. He has expertise in injury recovery and will take on the challenge of preparing and maintaining the team’s fitness throughout the season. They have also struck a new deal with Physio Direct, which adds Phil Rippon to the staff. In light of the younger average player age, Phil said “with younger guys, they're not as damaged by the sport yet. The new generation of athlete tends to be much more aware of physical preparation and strength and conditioning, as being an integral part of performance.”
Jeff Brown and Dan Spang are back with the squad as they were on two year deals. Other returners from last season are Steve Lee, Erik Lindhagen, Ollie Betteridge, Robert Farmer, Robert Lachowicz and David Clarke, the latter who will continue in his role of player and assistant coach.
The Aladdin Cup faces off on 12 August, it includes Nottingham, Cardiff and the Braehead Clan and is a round-robin competition with the winner the team finishing at the top of the table. Panthers are also playing an exhibition match against the Krefeld Pinguine's from DEL league in Germany on 19 August.
The Elite league will also have two representatives in the 2017/18 Champions Hockey League, with league winners Cardiff and IIHF Continental Cup winners Nottingham entering the tournament. Playoff winners, Sheffield, will enter the 2017/18 Continental Cup. The Panthers will play three home and three away games in the CHL during August, September and October. They face off with an away game in Bern, Switzerland, and will play teams in the Czech Republic and Finland.
Elite League action opens in Nottingham on 9 September against the Coventry Blaze. The Challenge Cup starts on 10 September, away, against the Sheffield Steelers.
Neilson came to Nottingham in 2006, started as player coach in 2008 and retired as a player in 2012/13. He has led the team to six Challenge Cup wins, four play off wins, the first ever European Cup win for a UK team and the Elite League title only once in nine seasons at the helm. There are some among the fan base who believe a hit rate of one in nine is not enough for one of the UK’s biggest ice hockey teams, despite his success in other competitions. Perhaps it is this that prompted another of Neilson’s comments this summer:
"We are laser focused on putting team together who can win a league championship.”
Whether or not he is drinking in the last chance saloon this season, I hope his focus is on the week in, week out consistency required to win the league. With that in mind, my predictions for 2017-18 campaign are:
League – Nottingham
Cup - Cardiff
Play offs – Sheffield
Whatever happens, it is likely to be an exciting season, so strap in for the usual sporting drama at the National Ice Centre.
Pre-season faces off on Saturday 12 August with The Aladdin Cup, which includes Nottingham, Cardiff and the Braehead Clan. Panthers are also playing an exhibition match against the Krefeld Pinguine's from DEL league in Germany on Saturday 19 August.
Follow Sally on Twitter: @sautton22
Nottingham Panthers website