Making Up The Numbers

Ian Braisby writes a tale of Quality, Quantity & Nationality.
Note: Ian wrote this article prior to the signing of Cam Jannsen

So the new season is just a few weeks away, the players have started returning to Nottingham for pre-season training and the publicity machine is in full swing. At the same time, head coach Corey Neilson is still putting the finishing touches to his line-up, with one import left to announce.

Yes, one import left to announce. This summer, rather than the players themselves, one of the biggest talking points for Panthers fans has been the coach’s decision to start the season with just 12 imports rather than the maximum 13 allowed in the Elite League. Needless to say, this announcement has caused a good deal of controversy and debate.

There have been rumblings of discontent among some supporters, with accusations of cost cutting and complacency, and the phrase “short-changing the loyal fans” getting regular outings on forums and social media. The general consensus is that as one of the EIHL’s “biggest” clubs, the Panthers should be icing the maximum number of overseas players allowed (and even recruiting spares), not starting short.

But are the accusations justified? Personally don’t think so. While of course I don’t want to see Panthers making big cutbacks and being outspent by clubs with, theoretically, much fewer resources, I don’t see any evidence that this has happened. I tend to think that our owner gives the coach a very competitive budget to recruit his team, and our history of replacing players and adding to the roster mid-season reveals strong financial backing, not the kind of penny-pinching some accuse the club of engaging in. At the same time, I do not want to see Panthers go down the road of throwing daft money at achieving short-term success. I value the stability of my club over any immediate gratification such a policy might provide.

When it comes to the decision to go into the season with 12 imports, I think it’s down to the way the coach has chosen to spend his budget rather than a lack of budget available. In an interview, Neilson said he felt we had enough depth in the squad without signing the full number of imports initially. Although he didn’t mention money, we all know he is working within certain financial constraints and every decision he makes has implications.

I take two main things from what he said. The first is that our imports are an upgrade on last year and thus are costing more. As with any new player to the country, it’s very much “wait and see” but I can see a big improvement not just in pedigree but also in the type of characters that have been brought to the club. After two poor seasons, I would certainly rather see us spend our money on 12 good imports than have a number of weak links. The second point is that the coach is endorsing the quality of our British players, and this is actually the key factor for me.

In the EIHL, every team has to have a number of British players on its roster. While imports are usually the biggest stars in the league and the players who we mainly think of as bringing success to clubs, history has shown that especially when it comes to winning league titles you need a solid contribution from your British players too.

Pretty much every title winning squad since the league was formed has included at least a couple of Brits who matched many of the imports for performance and were key players over the season. The Panthers are no different. Yes, we think first of names like Beauregard, Lepine, Kowalski, Ling and Fox as being the mainstays of our success under Corey Neilson, but those rosters always had an excellent basis of British players.

Of course, it is well known that the talent pool is relatively small and the number of top quality British players is limited. While there are some excellent home-grown players around, I do not feel I am being too controversial or biased in saying that, taken as a unit, the British players on the current Panthers roster is the strongest group in the league. Needless to say, such a strong home-grown contingent comes at a price, especially considering the scarcity value of top British players. It’s not really that surprising to me that recruiting such a strong British core might have to come at the expense of a 13th import, at least initially. But I’m actually pretty pleased about that. Two reasons – the first is that the quality of imports has been so variable recently, and is such a lottery anyway, that I prefer players whose capabilities are known, and second because I think those we have are genuinely good players. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say familiarity breeds contempt, I certainly believe some people have a tendency to take for granted and underestimate the quality of our British lads. And to fall into the trap of playing down the importance of strong British players, who can do more than make up the numbers and give the imports a longer sit down. So how about we take a look at them?

Let’s start with David Clarke, winner of more silverware than any other man in our club’s history. The league’s all-time highest goalscorer. A player who, in the past decade, has only been outscored by four import team-mates over a full season. A man you can be confident will bag you 25-30 goals, more than any of our imports managed last year. Am I happy for my club to spend a chunk of its player budget on that kind of signing? You bet I am. And if we had signed an import with that proven pedigree, people would be rubbing their hands together in glee.

Then we have Matthew Myers. Another important part in our most successful period ever as a club. A great all-round game and a signing that addresses some massive weaknesses from last season – namely our terrible puck carrying and transition play and our woeful efforts in the face-off circle. So our coach signs a proven performer who can add things we lacked the previous year – how can that be a bad thing?
Robert Lachowicz is one of the best readers of the game, and has some of the best hands, in the Elite League. He is also one of the most effective penalty-killers. Granted, he had a poor year last time around, but so did most of our roster and we know exactly what he is capable of.

Backing up these three, you have Robert Farmer, a huge fan favourite, fantastic attitude, a real team ethic and an excellent agitator, Steve Lee, who has grown into a solid all-round defenceman in Nottingham, Paul Swindlehurst, a highly-rated GB international, and youngsters Sam Oakford and Ollie Betteridge, who will relish the opportunity to improve their game with more ice-time.

By spending a sizeable chunk of his budget on these players, Corey Neilson is putting his faith in their quality, and the fact that they bring proven ability and a history of winning trophies with our club. If you include back-up netminder Dan Green, our current roster features five players who have won the treble (or as the Elite League prefers to call it, the Grand Slam). No other team can match that. And they contributed too – the three forwards among them had a combined 160 points that year – and fully expect them to play a big part this coming season as well.

At the end of the day, we may end up signing a 13th import at some stage. Especially if Clarke or Lee has recurrences of their long-term injuries, we may welcome the flexibility it brings us. But for now, I am more than happy for our coach to sign an import less than he could because of the strength of our British players, some of whom any other EIHL team would snap up in a moment if they had the opportunity. They bring more than enough to the table to merit their spot on the team on ability, not just nationality, and give us the solid foundation we need – when you add better quality imports than last year to the equation – to start challenging for honours again.

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