Clock Ticking as Nottingham Panthers Rebuild Team

There is only one thing worse than your boss setting a deadline, and that’s when that deadline is revealed very publicly in front of 200 or more of your fans.

That is exactly what happened to Nottingham Panthers coach Corey Neilson when the Panthers’ owner, Neil Black, told a fan Q & A session that he expected the full team to be signed and in Nottingham by the start of preseason training camp ahead of the 2017-18 season. You’d think that having a full squad at the start of preseason training would be the norm, but the ability to do it seems to have eluded the Panthers for a few years now. The fact that the team has started the preseason and, most years, the regular season a number of players short led to the question being asked and the deadline being set.

Picking up the Pieces

As it stands, the Panthers only have eight players returning from the 2016-17 side. It should have been nine but Brian McGrattan announced recently that he would not be fulfilling the second year of his contract. This left another hole in a jigsaw that already felt like it had more gaps than pieces. There were never going to be that many pieces left to fit together after last season. The 2016-17 season was an odd one for the Nottingham Panthers. They may have become the first British side to win the IIHF Continental Cup, but the team was underwhelming in every other competition finishing mid-table in the league and falling in the first round of the playoffs.

Brian McGratton
Brian McGrattan left the club halfway through a two-year deal. (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

Neilson built a team that was based on experience, and that strategy obviously didn’t work. The team’s mix of aging players (four players have since announced their retirement from the sport and McGrattan’s future remains uncertain), players who simply weren’t of the standard required to succeed in the EIHL and those who rarely showed signs of the ability levels they are capable of made for an extremely frustrating season for fans and coach alike.

As a result, it came as little surprise that only three importsDan Spang, Erik Lindhagen and Jeff Brown (brother of Toronto Maple Leafs’ Connor)are returning (and two of thoseSpang and Brownare entering the second of their two-year deals). It is impossible to know how many of the other 12 “imports” were offered contracts as the club does not release this kind of information, but Neilson had commented shortly after the season ended that a mass overhaul was needed .

Completing the Puzzle

That mass overhaul has already begun with the Panthers having added five new faces to the team. A new netminding duo of Mike Garnett and Ukrainian national team netminder Eduard Zakharchenko have been brought in from Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL and HK Kremenchuk respectively. How the netminding duties will be split over the season obviously remains to be seen, but I would doubt that Zakharchenko would have signed if he thought he would be getting the handful of starts that the average EIHL team backup does.

At the time of this writing, the only new defenceman that has been added to the team is 27-year-old Tim Billingsley from the Brampton Beast. The former teammate of Jeff Brown has had two seasons with the Beast and looks to be the type of solid defenceman that Panthers seemed to be missing on so many occasions last season. He also comes with the recommendation of former NHL player and ex-Panther David Ling, which was always going to go down well the Panthers faithful.

Recommended by David Ling, Tim Billingsley. (Photo Courtesy Joel Smith)

The two new faces in the forward ranks certainly fit the “younger and hungrier” criteria that Neilson has said he is looking for this season. Raphael Bussieres joins from Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia having been drafted in 46th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2012. The  23-year-old led his team in points last season, picking up nine goals and 25 assists in 48 games on a side that only managed to score 104 goals all season.

The final player, Alexander Mokshantsev, seems to be something of an enigma. At 22 years old he already has experience with Lada Togliatti in the KHL and has spent most of the last two seasons in the VHL most recently with Dizel Penza. Coach Neilson has already stated that he’ll play Mokshantsev on the fourth line alongside British players Rob Lachowicz and Ollie Betteridge but that he could turn out to be the best players in the league. If that’s the case I doubt he’ll be on the fourth line for long.

Raphael Bussieres
New signing Raphaël Bussières (Ross Bonander/THW)

Laying the Foundations

The thing is though, that those players, with the possible exception of Garnett, are not the kind of players that are going to win a team a title. If the Panthers are to challenge for silverware next season then the final seven signings that Neilson still has to make are going to be key. A lot of the signings so far strike me as being role players. This is a team that is being built from the bottom up; the foundations have been laid and we will just have to wait and see what kind of structure will stand on top of them.

The problem with saying we will have to wait and see is that waiting takes time and, increasingly, that is something the Panthers don’t have. Training camp starts at the beginning of August with the first preseason game coming on the 12th. If, as Neil Black has stated, all the players will be in Nottingham on the first day of training camp, then Neilson has just over five weeks to sign another seven or eight players and complete the Panthers’ roster.

The Clock Is Ticking

He doesn’t have five weeks though; he actually has a lot closer to two or three. The majority of those unsigned players will need to get visas to play in the United Kingdom and that can take weeks, weeks Neilson doesn’t have if he is to meet Black’s requirement. The Panthers fans are told repeatedly by the club that offers are on the table, and I have no doubt that they are, but there is no way of knowing how close those offers are to being accepted as contracts are being exchanged as you read this.

Personally, I can’t see Black getting his wish. I think training camp and the first preseason game will both start without a full roster and I’m OK with that as long as the players that aren’t there are worth waiting for. When it comes to putting a team together, getting it right is more important than getting it done quickly, no matter what the boss says.