EIHL Team By Team Preview 4: The Nottingham Panthers: Mix n’Match Hockey

I just don’t know what to do with myself…”

The White Stripes: “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”

INTRODUCTION

The only thing we know about the 2014/15 Nottingham Panthers is…we don’t know much about the 2014/15 Nottingham Panthers. Sure, we know the history…we know the situation that this is a team having to balance competing in the biggest club competition in Europe with teams twice their size and four or five times their budget with the mundaneness of an EIHL season. We know this is a roster built, at least early on, with that European competition in mind. And we know that judging by the recruitment Corey Neilson has returned to the “a place for everyone, and everyone in their place” recruitment ethos that saw the 2012/13 Panthers (almost) sweep the trophy board before a slightly less impressive year last year (although they did continue their seemingly endless stranglehold on the Challenge Cup, winning it for the fifth time in a row).

But the way this roster is built, it will likely be late October before we can get a concrete idea of what the 2014/15 Panthers EIHL personnel will be, particularly when it comes to imports. But, despite that, let’s plunge into the current roster and see what’s hiding in Corey Neilson’s kitty litter this season…

GOALIES

#33 Craig Kowalski, #31 Martins Raitums, #34 Dan Green

The Panthers are going into the CHL with two very good import goalies. Craig Kowalski is one of the best netminders of the EIHL era, period, while Martins Raitums is a Latvian who was anonymous for Hull a few years ago but has put up impressive statistics in the Kazakh leagues the past few seasons. These two will likely split time in the CHL early-season games, but unless Kowalski is injured, is poached by another squad as a result of the CHL or has an awful time, the EHL job is his to lose-Raitums, after all, is on a “short-term” contract and will likely look for a starting job elsewhere in Europe the moment that contract ends. About the only way he stays is if the Panthers very cleverly use their “EU import” slot on him and give themselves the strongest goalie tandem in the league. Dan Green will once again get the best seat in the NIC as backup to the backup in the CHL and likely EIHL second-string.

DEFENCE

#2 Tom Norton (two-way with EPL’s Peterborough), #3 Bryan Schmidt, #4 Sam Oakford, #6 Mike Berube, #8 Cody Wild, #25 Colby Cohen, #32 Charles Landry, #45 Stevie Lee, #55 Evan Mosey, 

Again, this is a defence loaded up to the gills for the CHL. The only two players who are guaranteed to stay beyond the early part of the season are the Brits, Sam Oakford (stepping up from the EPL after several impressive development years) and Stephen Lee (one of the best British defencemen out there). Mike Berube, and Bryan Schmidt are the only obviously defensive D among the imports…Charles Landry and Cody Wild looks to play a capable two-way game while Colby Cohen (a career AHLer) and Evan Mosey (one of the dark-horse signings of this season, potentially) are both exciting-looking offensive players. The simple fact for the Panthers here is…they have six import defencemen and only need four, so two will be sitting out or gone by the time we get into the meat of the EIHL season. With Wild already injured, he may get a sympathy spot to stay, but the simple fact here is…any of these import d-men can do an EIHL job…and all of them know they’re fighting for a potential contract, although with Colby Cohen on a short-term contract he may have his sights set elsewhere. The Panthers would be wise to at least try and keep the former Providence Bruin, however. There is certainly an embarrassment of riches here for Corey Neilson to pick his “final” EIHL roster from.

FORWARDS

#5 Dave Clarke, #7 Rob Lachowicz, #10 Nathan Robinson, #16 Max Parent, #19 Rob Farmer, #20 Chris Higgins, #21 Bruce Graham, #22 Mark Lee, #26 Brandon Benedict, #27 Chris Lawrence, #41 Greg Jacina, #47 Martin Podlesak, #51 Ollie Betteridge, #89 Jonathan Boxill.

Phew. What a murderers’ row of forwards. With 14 forwards, 5 of them Brits (although Betteridge is on a two-way) and only 11 spots available, several of these players won’t last beyond October. It’s already known that Nathan Robinson, Martin Podlesak and Mark Lee are the three players announced as on “short-term” contracts…Robinson spent last year in the DEL and is a very quick forward, Lee is a versatile centre and Podlesak is a big Czech power forward, so all could be very useful in the EIHL if convinced to stay on. However, the depth in the Panthers’ group even without these three is frightening. Lachowicz, Farmer and Clarke are all top-tier British players, while Boxill, too, was an impressive grinding forward last season. Among the imports Bruce Graham tore up the EIHL scoring charts last time he was here, Chris Higgins has skill to burn and Greg Jacina is solid. Max Parent is another big man up the middle, and Brandon Benedict is a truly superb two-way centre who has consistently been one of he best players at his position in the EIHL. Finally, Chris Lawrence is a big imposing winger who has scored fairly consistently at ECHL level. Frankly, you could take any six of these import forwards (assuming that the Panthers don’t carry any spares) and you’d have a very strong group to join arguably the strongest Brit group in the EIHL. Again, Corey Neilson has an embarrassment of riches to pick from here in his 13 forwards.

COACH: Corey Neilson (7th year):

We know how good Corey Neilson is as an EIHL coach. The fact that his teams have won nine trophies in the past five seasons is clear enough a demonstration of that. The question this season isn’t how he’s built his roster to start, but how he manages the bounty he has at his disposal. Does he go with extra imports and if so, how does he keep all his players happy? How does he use his British group, particularly in European competition early on? Most importantly, who does he keep and who does he cut when the “short-term” contracts are over? Does he try to retain players or go with his original plan?

The decisions he makes are crucial as always, but in this season, they could be more crucial to Panthers’ success than ever.

PROSPECTIVE LINES (CHL)

David Clarke-Mark Lee-Nathan Robinson

Chris Higgins-Bruce Graham-Greg Jacina

Martin Podlesak-Brandon Benedict-Chris Lawrence

Rob Lachowicz-Max Parent-Jonathan Boxill

Ollie Betteridge

Colby Cohen-Bryan Schmidt

Mike Berube-Cody Wild

Evan Mosey-Charles Landry

Stevie Lee-Sam Oakford

Craig Kowalski

Martins Raitums

Dan Green

PROSPECTIVE LINES (EIHL)-these are the strongest lines I think the Panthers “could” put out, assuming they can convince their “short term” contract imports to stay and thus choose from all 17 for their final 12, while also keeping to some sort of logical budget and within EIHL laws)

David Clarke-Bruce Graham-Nathan Robinson

Chris Higgins-Mark Lee-Chris Lawrence

Rob Lachowicz-Brandon Benedict-Jonathan Boxill

Ollie Betteridge

Colby Cohen-Mike Berube

Cody Wild-Evan Mosey

Stevie Lee-Sam Oakford

Craig Kowalski

Dan Green

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Colby Cohen (D), Nathan Robinson (F),  Bruce Graham (F), Evan Mosey (D)

Yes, I picked four players-two of who I think will stay, and two of whom (Cohen and Robinson) are on short-term contracts. Let’s deal with those two first. Colby Cohen is an AHL-quality offensive defenceman, big and skilled for his size. He’s a player who any EIHL team would likely drool over. Nathan Robinson is the same-fast and skilled, he’s scored well at far higher levels than the EIHL and if the Panthers can keep him he’d be the perfect foil to Bruce Graham on the top line. Evan Mosey is an exciting young offensive D who’s something of a surprise grab for the Panthers having played in the Dutch league last year, but he has the potential to be one of the sleeper hit signings of the season if he continues his Dutch form. He’s also a dual-national, which helps a lot in the recruitment stakes.

SUMMARY

As you can see by the above, the Panthers have a myriad of options and are going into this season as arguably the greatest unknown in EIHL terms thanks to the wrench in roster makeup the CHL recruitment has thrown into the works. What is certain is that, whatever the final Panthers roster ends up looking like, it’s going to be a strong one that will give many other teams pause. It’s also going to be a big, powerful one, with the average size being 6’1 and 191 lbs and many players being bigger than that, particularly up front.

The Panthers have claws sharpened as usual…the question is, how they use them in domestic competition. Use them right and they’ll beat any team in the league, and so they shouldn’t be counted out of adding to Corey Neilson’s trophy haul this season.

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