Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. It starts today-and where better to start than with the current reigning EIHL Champions, the Nottingham Panthers?
“The dogs are comin’ swift and mean
But I’m hungrier than they have ever been”
Murder By Death: “Sometimes The Line Walks You”
The Nottingham Panthers are the team everyone wants to beat. Staring down from the top of the mountain after winning league, playoffs and Challenge Cup last season, Corey Neilson could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels a little-or even retaining all of last season’s roster-a team that easily ranked among the top five best squads of the EIHL era. But real-life intruded with a bump as Matt Myers is headed home to Cardiff, talismanic forward David Ling seemingly giving in finally to the ravages of time, and their fearless leader Jordan Fox, one of the most effective and versatile two-way players of the EIHL era, leaving for the St Charles Chill back in North America to name but three losses. This is a Panthers roster that looks very different to last year’s, although Neilson has managed to retain stars like David Clarke, Rob Lachowicz and perhaps most crucially for the Panthers, goalie Craig Kowalski and D-man Eric Werner, who was a revelation on the Panthers blue line last season. But how do they stack up? Let’s take a look, position by position. Imports will always be listed in bold.
#31 Sam Gospel, #33 Craig Kowalski, #34 Dan Green
This is without doubt a solid group in net. Gospel will spend the season on a two-way to continue developing, possibly taking the odd backup duty, but it will once again be American Craig Kowalski and Brit Dan Green carrying the responsibility in net. Kowalski is a proven quantity…the experienced 32-year-old from Clinton Township, Michigan has been the best netminder in the EIHL the past two seasons, leading the league in save percentage both in 11/12 and 12/13. He’s also won three playoff titles, three Challenge Cups and a league title in his time in Nottingham. The simple fact is-he’s the netminder any other masked man in the league will have to beat. An incredible 1.98 GAA and 92.3 SV% in 60 games in 11/12 was his best season, but last season’s 2.07 GAA in 55 games wasn’t far behind. If necessary Green is a more than capable substitute, but with an average of around four goals a game and 15 games a season in his EIHL career, the Panthers won’t want to be relying on him too much. Like most imports in the EIHL Kowalski is the clear starter, and his game will no doubt only be further improved by the likes of Frank Doyle and Dan LaCosta threatening his spot at the top of the EIHL tree.
#2 Tom Norton, #14 Jonathan Weaver, #20 Chris Murray, #43 Brent Henley, #45 Stephen Lee, #68 Eric Werner
This defence is once again another strong Panthers unit, but it perhaps doesn’t have the depth of, say, Sheffield’s, Eric Werner is a massive resigning-he ran games from the blue-line last season and will likely be the #1 defenceman. Brent Henley is an intimidating figure at 6’7 and 249lbs, and comes with extensive AHL experience. Chris Murray is a question-mark, having played at a high level in the AHL but coming back to hockey after a season out through injury, while Jonathan Weaver provides a lot of experience, but at 36 Neilson will have to be careful to use him as well and sparingly as he did last season. Stephen Lee continues to rise in the ranks and is fast becoming one of the top British d-men if he hasn’t already, while Tom Norton will be expected to step up and take his minutes well. As a unit, it may be a gamble going with only three imports, implying that Weaver or Lee will be expected to take a lot of minutes-both can but if it’s Weaver who does, fatigue may become a factor. All in all, it’s a solid unit, but a lot hangs on the shoulders of Werner, Henley and Murray this season-if one of them struggles, then it could knock the whole unit out of alignment.
#5 David Clarke, #7 Rob Lachowicz, #9 Bob Wren, #15 Ollie Betteridge, #17 Matt Francis, #21 Matt Ryan, #23 Chris Capraro, #24 Leigh Salters, #26 Brandon Benedict, #27 Lynn Loyns, #89 Jonathan Boxill
Going forward, the Panthers once again look very dangerous. In Clarke and Lachowicz they have two of the top British forwards in the EIHL, with Lachowicz in particular primed to take his place amongst the elite this season. Bob Wren is vastly experienced (including NHL experience) at 38, playing in the Swiss league last season, while Loyns and Ryan have also spent time in the best league in the world. Leigh Salters is touted as a top-line EIHL power-forward and brings size and skill in a package few will match, while Benedict and Francis are two of the best two-way forwards in the EIHL while also carrying a soft touch in front of the net. The most intriguing newbie, however, is Chris Capraro…at 5’7 he’s amongst the smallest forwards in the EIHL but has shown a scoring touch in the ECHL before having a few quieter seasons-he could be primed as a breakout player. Boxill and Betteridge will fight for time on the third line as the Panthers look to once again build in depth. It’s a strong group, but will it be as effective as last years?
COACH: Corey Neilson (with Rick Strachan)
Despite being often derided, there can be no doubt that Neilson’s got better and better as a coach each season, consistently winning titles in a way that can be also credited to his assistant Strachan. Neilson isn’t the flashiest of coaches, and finally hit the jackpot last season as he built his team to a plan rather than collecting a group of flashy individuals and expecting them to mesh as he had in his first couple of seasons. Now also given a role as Team GB coach, there can be little doubt of the man from New Brunswick’s ability…the question now is, with his team carrying massive targets on their backs this season and the expectations of the Panthers fanbase raised to fever pitch-can he keep the run going?
Lynn Loyns-Matt Francis-David Clarke
Leigh Salters-Matt Ryan-Rob Lachowicz
Brandon Benedict-Bob Wren-Chris Capraro
Jonathan Boxill/Ollie Betteridge
Brent Henley-Eric Werner
Jonathan Weaver-Chris Murray
GOALIES: Craig Kowalski/Dan Green
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Once again, Corey Neilson has built a team that will be the envy of many, a team to defend the title doggedly. The Panthers will likely be one of the teams to beat once again…but they face a potential struggle early on to force their way out of the shadow of the sublime hockey played by the treble champion squad. The loss of Matt Myers is a big one, although by loading up on import forwards Neilson has offset this, and at the same time shown a lot of confidence in both Stevie Lee and Jonathan Weaver to take that number four spot most teams would rely on an import for.
For the most glaring positive, however…just look at those forward lines. There’s no discernible drop in quality between the “first” and the “third”-a depth that was one of the keys to the Panthers doing so well last year as at least one EIHL coach said “most teams roll lines 1,2, and 3. Panthers roll 3 first lines!”-an approach Neilson can also take this season.
However, the Panthers aren’t invincible. Kowalski has challengers to his “top goalie” crown and having two key players over the age of 35 may come to bite the Panthers in the hectic EIHL schedule-they dodged the bullets last season but can they hold again? Also, the defence is much more of an unknown quantity-Henley and Murray will have to be key players at both ends of the ice and Weaver and Lee will have to hold that second-line D spot and make it their own.
Looking across the rosters, particularly in the Erhardt Conference, it’s clear that the Panthers raised the bar quite considerably last year and, while Corey Neilson has done a good job of holding that high standard, the rest of the EIHL has done its best to catch up. I’m sure the Panthers will still be in the title mix this season and they have a very good squad indeed once again-the problem for them is…now they’ve set the new bar for EIHL teams and held to it this season, how much closer have the rest got, and what effect will Continental Cup ambitions have on their domestic chase? We shall see.
Prediction: Title Challengers once again. But retaining the title will be tough this season.