by Rhys Williams (@rhyswilliams79)
THE SEASON THAT WAS
Change has arguably been needed this off-season more than ever for the Nottingham Panthers with the fanbase becoming increasingly impatient with no league title won since 2013.
Looking back to last season, it was their highest finish since then, but the club were still an alarming 22 points off the top spot despite being many people’s favourites for the title.
Encouraging signs were shown in September with six wins in the opening eight games including a stunning comeback win against Cardiff at home, but it went downhill from there as the team struggled for consistency.
A five-game winning streak in late November until early December was as good as it got, with four and six game losing streaks occuring in the following months.
Ex NHLer Chris Stewart was bought in to address the poor form, but nothing was to change results wise.
Over the last half of the season, Nottingham were seveth for form in the league making it a campaign to forget.
Salt was added to the wound when star defenceman Dylan Olsen sustained a long term injury.
With the title realistically out of sight mid season, Rich Chernomaz was sacked after losses to Manchester and Cardiff mid January and Rick Strachan took over, but the Panthers never quite found their spark with a severe lack of offensive creativity, poor defensive organisation and reckless discipline.
After knocking the Fife out of the playoffs at the quarter final stage, the season came to a humiliating end with a 9-4 demolition to eventual champions Cardiff at finals weekend in a shambolic defensive display.
A second consecutive trophyless season puts the organisation under immense pressure going into 2019/20.
The Panthers have taken a different approach to recruitment this off-season with the introduction of a Director of Hockey role, undertaken by Guillaume Doucet, who brings a wealth of experience of the league.
His first task was to appoint former NHLer Tim Wallace, who led a short benched, underpaid Milton Keynes side to some strong performances last season in difficult circumstances, including a shock victory over the Panthers in March.
With much better resources, this appointment has high potential and makes sense despite raising some eyebrows initially.
Looking at the roster, there are 14 new additions. Younger players such as Georgs Golovkovs, Dylan Malmquist and Adam Deutsch fit into the emphasis on speed, who collectively bring experience from the EIHL itself, NCAA and the SHL last season.
Point per game player Brett Bulmer (57 points in 57 games in 2018/19) brings physicality to the offence along with his impressive points tally last year and versatility comes from centreman Alexis Loiseu who has put up consistent numbers across Europe.
Jens Jakobs and player/assistant coach Mark Matheson both add heaps of experience and respectable point production at both ends, while defencemen Brian Connelly and Jason DeSantis are well proven.
Danny Fick also joins having earned a brief AHL call up last season and goaltender Kevin Carr brings consistency, with a save percentage above .900 and will be backed up by GB international Jackson Whistle.
Sam Herr is a stand out addition, having played the last four seasons in the AHL, but arguably the teams go-to points scorer will be William Quist, who, after five seasons in the Swedish Allsvensken moved to Denmark and put up a stunning 52 points in 40 games.
A large portion of the fanbase have been critical of the summer recruitment, due to a lack of ‘big league’ experience. For example, the Sheffield Steelers have a combined 656 games in the KHL compared to Panthers 41.
This may seem alarming, but from a personal perspective, Doucet and Wallace have gone against overly flashy CV’s and instead gone for players proven at a similar sort of level who have more to prove and will therefore take the league more seriously.
A lot of players such as Matheson, Bulmer and Golovkovs played on much poorer teams last year and will thrive with the increased quality around them.
The offence has a bit of everything, with speed, skill and physicality expected on all four lines, particularly the top line which I’ll get onto soon.
Goaltending looks incredibly strong, with Carr’s consistently good numbers, who Wallace has played with before.
Whilst I expect a solid top four on defence, I do have question marks over Matheson and Gui Lepine, who seem past their previous best, but have shown in the past they can be solid at the back.
Brit depth could be of concern to some fans with Steve Lee and Robert Farmer departing, but this gives chances to Ollie Betteridge and Josh Tetlow for breakout seasons, who are more than capable at EIHL level.
Whilst I don’t expect us to win the league, I expect a year of progress, which is what this club needs.
MY TOP LINE
My top offensive line would consist of Quist on the left, who will be a headache for opposition defences with his speed that is the norm in the Scandinavian leagues he has played in.
In the middle, I have Golovkovs who brings pace and composure, and was able to put up 40 points in 54 games last season, which with better players around him, could easily transpire into 60 plus.
This line lacks physicality, you say? In comes Brett Bulmer. The former NHLer brings strength and energy, as well as points galore and like Golovkovs, could very well increase with the quality around him.
Jens Jakobs and Alexis Loiseau also makes good cases for the top line. My top defensive pairing would consist of Brian Connelly, who brings experience and offence, as well as Adam Deutsch who brings increased speed and prestige having come straight out of the SHL. Jason DeSantis could also push for the top two.