Ten Teams Ten Days VI: Nottingham Panthers: Locked And Loaded

No mercy, no quarter
They’ll pay for their sins
Now lower the cannons the battle begins”

Dropkick Murphys: “Hang ‘Em High

INTRO

The Nottingham Panthers last year were a team constantly in a state of flux-a team not quite sure what it wanted to be. Corey Neilson attempted to juggle the competing demands of the CHL early on and the EIHL later. His Panthers team, like many others, showed flashes of brilliance but was too inconsistent to mount a serious title challenge – the highlight of the season came early on with a win over the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers, and culminated in the Panthers not even making the playoff weekend in their own rink after a loss to the eventual champions, the Coventry Blaze.

This year sees a Panthers team reloaded, rearmed and built to bulldoze their way through the EIHL with a barrage of firepower rather than dance through it as Corey Neilson changes approach slightly. But what does it look like?

NETMINDERS

#20 Miika Wiikman, #34 Dan Green

The Panthers have another new face in net this season – the first in some while after Craig Kowalski has finally stepped away from the team with which he became an EIHL legend. The work-permit rules and changes with EIHL goalies have meant something of a change in the EIHL netminding landscape, with the predominantly North American group beginning to change a little and add slightly more of a European flavour. Miika Wiikman is a relatively small (6′ and 176lbs) Swedish-Finn who has played extensively in the Finnish Liiga and also in the AHL, but whose career has seen a recent slide downhill, first into the Finnish 2nd Division and then Slovakia.

He’s an agile goalie who relies on positioning and movement to cover his net, although his style does lead to a lot of rebounds, most of which are controlled pretty well. In the EIHL he should be a more than serviceable goalie if allowed to see the shots and seeing his crease kept clear-something that, as we’ll see, Corey Neilson has taken strongly into account.

Wiikman will be backed up once again by perennial Panthers backup Dan Green, who is among the better EIHL backups, but once again will only be called upon when Wiikman is injured.

DEFENCEMEN

#4 Bryan Schmidt, #6 Jeff Dimmen, #23 Paul Swindlehurst, #24 Theo Peckham, #27 Sam Oakford, #44 Geoff Waugh, #45 Stephen Lee

The Panthers defensive group is built first and foremost with the intention of making the Panthers zone a punishing place to be for opposition forwards. The undoubted star of this group is former Edmonton Oiler Theo Peckham, once considered one of the brightest prospects in the Oilers system. Peckham has the potential to be a beast – at 6’2 and 216lbs he’s a punishing hitter who loves to make opposition forwards’ lives hell on earth in front of his net – a task in which he’ll be backed strongly by Croatian-Canadian Geoff Waugh, who is the same weight but two inches taller. American Bryan Schmidt is a steady, calm two-way player who’ll likely be anchoring the third pairing.

The main offensive drive from this blue-line will be provided by American Jeff Dimmen, who comes to Nottingham off a stellar few offensive seasons in the Asia League with Anyang Halla, including a 40-assist-in-42-game performance in 2012/13.

The British contingent, meanwhile, has Stephen Lee and Paul Swindlehurst as its anchors with Sam Oakford as a strong backup option. This is a defensive unit that’s not the prettiest, but it’s built to do a job of making the Panthers zone an unwelcoming place for forwards, and it does that very well while not skimping too much on the offensive side.

FORWARDS

#5 David Clarke, #7 Rob Lachowicz, #8 Matthew Myers, #9 Andy Bohmbach, #13 Juraj Kolnik, #14 Stephen Schulz, #17 Evan Mosey, #19 Rob Farmer, #20 Brad Moran, #39 Logan MacMillan, #55 Cam Janssen, #74 Oliver Betteridge

Corey Neilson’s forward group is built with an equal mix of skill, scoring and power, but the power it contains will, in some cases, have to be very carefully managed. However, while the defence is built with protection of its own zone in mind, the emphasis on the offence is about shock-and-awe and withering firepower.

There are many names that stand out when looking at this group-the sheer offensive potential it contains in particular is extremely impressive-in fact, it may be among the most impressive collections of firepower ever assembled on an EIHL squad.

Brad Moran is a top-line centre many EIHL teams would kill for, providing an equal mix of scoring and playmaking ability that will be perfect to feed accomplished snipers like Juraj Kolnik and Andy Bohmbach the bullets for them to fire, while more than capable of pulling the trigger himself when needed. Deal with that line, and there’s players like Stephen Schulz, Rob Farmer and David Clarke to contend with. Rob Lachowicz and Evan Mosey provide even more speed and scoring, while Logan MacMillan and Matt Myers provide the two-way savvy and balance that this group needs, and young talent Ollie Betteridge will have the chance to develop once again.

The most curious name on that list, though, is the last one. The Panthers have made a lot of fanfare about signing NHL tough-guy Cam Janssen, but he’s not a goalscorer or a playmaker…the man himself says he sees his role as to “go out there and hurt people, put the fear of God into them”. He’s supposed to be the toughness on this Panthers squad…but does he really represent the best use of their resources when even in the EIHL he’s likely to be a 3rd/4th-line “energy” player?

The EIHL’s moving away from the “beat the crap out of teams and fight a lot” template…and one-dimensional players like Janssen (23 points in 500+ pro games but 1400 PIMs over that same span) are slowly being eased down the pyramid – there was no place found for him in the NHL, AHL or ECHL this season and no team in Europe really fancied him either.

It’s all very well the Panthers trumpeting “toughness”, “grit” and “hitting” but they already have that in the likes of Peckham & Waugh on D and Myers, Farmer and MacMillan in the forwards. Neilson will have to keep a very tight rein on a player known to have rushes of blood to the head and as one of the dirtiest players in every league he’s played in. Failing that, the Panthers will need to do a whole lot of work on their penalty kill.

When even one of the Panthers management team is saying they expect Janssen to play a fourth-line role and hit things:

you have to wonder just how much he’ll actually contribute in a league where even now imports have to have a more rounded role. It’s even money right now whether or not Janssen’s antics will harm the team more than it helps it.

Leaving that issue aside and returning to the positives, this Panthers forward group has firepower to burn. That’s their biggest asset, and should see them become a contender in the EIHL this season once again.

PLAYER TO WATCH – BRAD MORAN (C)

Much as attention will be focused on ex-NHLers and physical cornerstones of this team Peckham and Janssen, the key to this team and the player whose performance will really make this team tick is the ex-Columbus Blue Jacket Moran. A silky-smooth playmaker who arguably should still be playing at a much higher level, Moran will be the player who’ll make sure the Panthers snipers have the bullets to fire. His passing and vision are superb, and he can create chances out of nothing-which makes him particularly dangerous on the PP. Opposition teams won’t be able to give him an inch of space or a second of time, or he’ll punish them.

Fans and indeed the Panthers themselves can talk all they like about Janssen’s hits being crucial and how they love to see physical play, but they’re not what the scoreboard counts. It counts goals, and Moran will be one of the best creators of the chances to score them in the EIHL.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Andy Bohmbach-Brad Moran-Juraj Kolnik

David Clarke-Matt Myers-Stephen Schulz

Rob Lachowicz-Logan MacMillan-Rob Farmer

Oliver Betteridge-Evan Mosey-Cam Janssen

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Theo Peckham-Jeff Dimmen

Geoff Waugh-Stephen Lee

Bryan Schmidt-Paul Swindlehurst

Sam Oakford

Miika Wiikman

THE COACH: Corey Neilson (8th season)

Now the longest-tenured coach in the EIHL, with the exception of Todd Dutiaume, Neilson has matured from a slightly rocky beginning into a career that’s seen him become the most successful coach in the EIHL era. He is an intelligent man who is very much in the “thinking hockey” mould of coaching – no fire and brimstone, just systems and carefully-thought-out lineups (which makes the signing of someone like Cam Janssen more surprising).

Neilson and his assistant Rick Strachan have given themselves arguably he most talented roster they’ve ever had this season – it’ll be very interesting indeed to see what they can make of it and if they can get it to fulfil its potential.

SUMMARY

The Nottingham Panthers this year look like a team determined to make a mark on an Erhardt Conference that has become an arms race of talent. While some teams have gone with organisation, the Panthers have taken the approach of trying to build a team that will be a threat whoever is on the ice, much like Cardiff and Braehead, whether that be a threat to the scoreboard (particularly the first two lines) or to the opposition’s physical safety (whenever Cam Janssen is on the ice).

The potential firepower this team carries is shock-and-awe level impressive, while the defensive unit should ensure that any team crossing the Panthers blue-line is going to have to work very hard to put the puck past Miika Wiikman. However, question marks remain over one thing…can the “unsavoury” element in this team be controlled well enough to enable the component parts to do their work, or in the quest to react to criticisms of the Panthers being “too soft”, have they committed to a signing that will hurt their team more than help it?

We shall see.

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