Opponent preview: 2017/18 Nottingham Panthers
The Genting Casino Coventry Blaze 2017/18 Elite League campaign begins on the road at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham vs. the Panthers on Saturday. We've all heard of their recent exploits in the Champions Hockey League, defeating Mountfield HK twice and the fourth ranked SC Bern, but who are this new Nottingham side? Jono Bullard (@JonoBullard) of the Cat's Whiskers and Nottingham Lions Media takes a look for us:
The 2017/18 Nottingham Panthers are a very different beast from the 2016/17 version. The Continental Cup Champions have seen an import cull with just three retained from last season, defenceman Dan Spang, Forward Jeff Brown and utility man Eric Lindhagen. They join British players David Clarke, Robert Lachowicz, Robert Farmer, Oliver Betteridge & new Captain Stevie Lee as returnees.
At a Q&A session in February, Panthers chairman Neil Black promised a younger, hungrier team for this season. They are certainly younger with an average age of 26 (compared with 30 last season) and on the evidence of the Champions Hockey League so far much, much hungrier.
In goal, Michael Garnett comes in as the new number one netminder. The vastly experienced 34 year-old is the one of only two members of the squad with NHL experience having played 24 games for Atlanta Thrashers and also 328 games in the KHL. He is joined by Nottingham born Sam Gospel, an EPL champion last season with the Telford Tigers.
The defence has also seen a major overhaul with six new recruits. The pick of the bunch is 27 year-old Yann Sauvé (the other member of the team with NHL experience). He joins from EHC Red Bull Munich in the DEL where he won the DEL championship last season. He’s already endeared himself to the Nottingham faithful with some outstanding CHL performances which has seen him score 3 goals from the blue-line after four games.
Tim Billingsley & Mathieu Gagnon join from the ECHL’s Brampton Beast on the recommendation of former Panther David Ling, while Mathieu Brisebois joins from French side Amiens. All three have a decent amount of ECHL experience while and fit the young, hungrier mould that coach Corey Neilson has recruited. Gagnon is a converted left wing and will provide the protection this season having racked up over 450 PIMs in his professional career so far and was quoted as saying “I don’t fight because I have to, I do it because I enjoy it!”
Two-young British recruits complete the blue-line. Local lad Joseph Hazeldine is just 16 but already shows maturity beyond his years. He will be on a two-way contract with the Swindon Wildcats. 19 year-old Josh Tetlow is another under 23 recruit and is a huge presence at the back standing at 6 feet 6 inches tall. He will be on a two-way deal with Bracknell Bees.
The forward lines have also seen a great deal of change, but it was the return of fan favourite Evan Mosey that excited the fan base so much after a year playing in the AHL for Rockford Ice Hogs. His renowned pace will be a constant thorn in opponent’s sides, especially in power play or overtime situations.
Neilson will be looking for points from Mark Derlago, Josh Shalla, Zack Phillips & Raphaël Bussières. Derlago comes to Nottingham after two seasons in Asia but it was his ECHL career stats that raised eyebrows, where he achieved a points per game average of 1.26 in 244 games. Shalla comes on the recommendation of former Panther Brock Wilson and has already shown his goal scoring potential after netting four CHL goals and obtaining the ‘Top Scorer’ jersey. Phillips is just 24 but has 260 AHL games & 50 Allsvenskan games on his résumé and is a superb distributor of the puck. Finally Bussières joins from Olimpija Ljubljana in the EBEL and at just 23 the former Minnesota Wild draft pick brings a lot of potential.
Young Russian Alexander Mokshantsev was another signing that raised eyebrows. Despite KHL experience Neilson said that he would start Mokshantsev on the fourth line, but three excellent goals in the CHL may force the head coach into a rethink. Look out for him to be one of the finds of the season.
Perhaps the most important signing came right out of the blue in Brett Perlini. His father Fred will be familiar with older Panthers fans who remember him icing with the club in the mid-1980’s and it’s because of Fred’s time in the UK that Brett qualifies as a British player. He has spent the majority of his professional career in the ECHL scoring 146 points in 272 games and Neilson will no doubt be looking for a similar output from his new British recruit.
It is another youngster who completes the new forward corps as Jordan Kellsall joins from the Okanagen Hockey Acadamy in Swindon. The 18 year-old has bags of potential and will be splitting his time between the Panthers and Swindon Wildcats.
As I said at the start, this is a very different Panthers team from previous seasons which excited the fan base before the Champions Hockey League group stages started. The phenomenal performances in that competition has only raised that excitement further with the club just one win away from qualifying for the knockout stages, something that no-one would have realistically believed possible prior to the competition starting.
The CHL performances have been there for all to see and if the Panthers can carry that level of intensity into the Elite League season then no team will look forward to facing Nottingham. The battle is about to begin, bring it on.