After popping at world juniors, Mikhail Vorobyev sees 'good opportunity' with Phantoms

After popping at world juniors, Mikhail Vorobyev sees 'good opportunity' with Phantoms

VOORHEES, N.J. — Not many people knew who Mikhail Vorobyev was when the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships began last December.

They found out quick who he was by the end.

Vorobyev led the tournament with 10 assists in seven games for Team Russia, which captured the bronze medal. He didn’t register a goal but his 10 points were third most.

“Vorobyev popped at the world juniors when he’s playing with his peers,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said recently during development camp at Flyers Skate Zone.

“Our guys really liked him his draft year. We got him in the fourth round probably because he was in Russia. He was hidden a little bit.”

After one full season playing in the KHL for Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Vorobyev signed his entry-level contract with the Flyers in late April. The 20-year-old center will spend the 2017-18 season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms as part of an interesting forward group.

Lehigh Valley finished as the second-best AHL team last season with 101 points in the regular season, but it lost to the Hershey Bears in five games during the first round of the playoffs.

This season, Vorobyev figures to have a spot in the regular lineup, but the forward competition in the AHL could be as competitive as it will be with the Flyers.

Still, Vorobyev believed coming overseas was for his best interests.

“If you want to continue development,” Vorobyev said through an interpreter, Flyers skating coach Slava Kouznetsov, “this is a good opportunity to get better. In Russia, I think I reached up. That’s why I’m switching to North America to get better than I already am.”

It may take Vorobyev a while to get accumulated to the North American lifestyle, especially since he doesn’t speak English, but having Radel Fazleev at Lehigh Valley should help.

Fazleev is entering his second season in the AHL. He’s been in North America full-time since 2013-14, his first season in the WHL.

At development camp, Vorobyev had three other Russians — Fazleev, German Rubtsov and camp invite Ivan Kosorenkov — and Maksim Sushko, who’s from Belarus but speaks Russian, to lean on. Fazleev was the only development camp veteran of the bunch.

Like Rubtsov last summer, Vorobyev wasn’t able to attend development camp in 2015 and 2016 because of his contract obligations in the KHL. Having Kouznetsov around also helps.

"It is a big help,” Vorobyev said. “I'm feeling much more comfortable. The guys are helpful. It's easier to have conversation. They explain the rules, especially the guys who were here the previous years.”

The adjustment for Vorobyev will come largely off the ice. The Salavat, Russia, native doesn’t view the smaller rink as an obstacle, but it usually is for Europeans and Russians.

"When I traveled with the Russian team, I always liked to play on the smaller surface,” Vorobyev said. “I like it. There's no adjustment, basically."

Vorobyev isn’t the only player coming overseas this season for the Flyers. Oskar Lindblom, a 2014 fifth-round pick, believes the biggest transition for him will be the rink size.

“That’s the big thing,” he said. “It’s a little bit faster over here, so you have to think a little faster and be ready out there. Otherwise, you're going to get hit or not make the play."

Both Vorobyev and Lindblom were middle-round picks. Lindblom’s ascension has caught the eyes of the Flyers and their fans. Lindblom is expected to be a Flyer in 2017-18.

While Lindblom has earned the hype, Vorobyev’s progression has been interesting too. Both are examples of how far the Flyers’ scouting department has come in recent years.

Vorobyev earned a steady role in the KHL last season after splitting the 2015-16 season with Salavat Yulaev and Tolpar Ufa of the MHL.

For the average folk, Vorobyev’s numbers last season will not turn any heads. He had just three goals and 11 points in 44 games for Salavat Yulaev, but with young players in the KHL, it’s hard to judge strictly on statistics. What should be of note is the ice time.

During the regular season, Vorobyev averaged 9:47. That number shot up to 13:29 per game in five postseason contests. That signals his Salavat Yulaev coaches trusted him enough to play him.

It's easy to see the difference with Vorobyev and Rubtsov. Vorobyev carved out a spot on his team at 19 and 20 years old. Rubtsov couldn’t crack his KHL lineup.

Both are now in North America. The Flyers have three options with Rubtsov: QMJHL, AHL and NHL. They technically have two choices with Vorobyev, but he’ll be in the AHL.

“The Russians are a little bit of a different animal because if you’re playing in the KHL,” Hextall said, “you got a young kid playing against men in a top league and keep them down on the fourth line and give him seven minutes. It’s hard to show a whole lot in seven minutes.”

Vorobyev has added at least 13 pounds since the Flyers drafted him in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL draft. He’s currently listed at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds.

“If you look at his weight, his body makeup, it’s changed quite a bit since we drafted him,” Hextall said, “and again, he popped at the world juniors last year. Quite honestly, if you asked our scouts, I don’t think they’d be too surprised.”

The world junior performance was Vorobyev’s coming out party in North America. He was exciting to watch on a Russian team that also featured Rubtsov, who struggled in the tournament. Vorobyev displayed playmaking and vision not many ever he knew he had.

Vorobyev did most of his damage setting his teammates up from behind the net and said at development camp behind the net is an area he’s comfortable.

“Behind the net, I felt comfortable and got points off feeding the puck to the slot,” Vorobyev said. “If my partners did not score, I wouldn’t get assists. It is pride [to lead the tournament in assists], but the partners, that’s who I relied on.”

NHL Notes: Rangers ink Mika Zibanejad to 5-year extension

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USA Today Images

NHL Notes: Rangers ink Mika Zibanejad to 5-year extension

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers have signed center Mika Zibanejad to a $26.75 million, five-year deal.

Zibanejad will count $5.35 million against the salary cap through 2021-22 as the Rangers count on him to take on a bigger role following the trade of Derek Stepan. General manager Jeff Gorton announced the contract Tuesday morning, before the team and Zibanejad were set to go to arbitration.

The 24-year-old Swede had 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points in 56 games last season, his first with New York. The Rangers acquired Zibanejad from the Ottawa Senators for Derick Brassard a year ago.

Zibanejad has 188 points in 337 NHL games with the Senators and Rangers since Ottawa drafted him sixth overall in 2011 (see full story).

Team Canada names Sean Burke GM for 2018 Olympics
Sean Burke will be the general manager and Willie Desjardins the head coach for Canada at the first Olympics without NHL players since 1994.

Hockey Canada named its management and coaching staffs for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics on Tuesday. St. Louis Blues assistant general manager Martin Brodeur will work under Burke on the management side, while Desjardins will be assisted by Dave King, Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft.

Canada has been grooming Burke for this responsibility for some time as he served as assistant GM for the 2017 world championships, GM for the 2016 Spengler Cup and Deutschland Cup and director of player development for the 2016 worlds. Desjardins coached Canada's 2010 world junior team and assisted in 2009.

USA Hockey has not yet named its GM or coach (see full story).

Sabres re-sign goalie Lehner to 1-year deal
BUFFALO, N.Y.  -- The Buffalo Sabres have re-signed goaltender Robin Lehner to a $4 million, one-year contract.

The team announced the deal Tuesday. Lehner was a restricted free agent.

The 26-year-old Swede showed he could stay healthy last season, setting career highs with 59 games played, 23 wins and two shutouts. He ranked third in the NHL with 1,758 saves and finished with a .920 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average.

Bothered by injuries and concussion problems, Lehner had never before played more than 36 games in his NHL career. The Sabres took a chance on Lehner when they traded a first-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for him at the 2015 draft.

Lehner will again be a restricted free agent next summer when this contract expires.

Devils re-sign 3 restricted free agents
NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils have re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Mirco Mueller, forward Joseph Blandisi and goaltender Scott Wedgewood.

Mueller got a two-year deal worth an average of $850,000 a season, Blandisi a two-year, two-way deal worth an average of $680,000 in the NHL, and Wedgewood a one-year, two-way deal worth $650,000 in the NHL. General manager Ray Shero announced the contracts Tuesday.

Re-signing Mueller for two years was the most significant move after New Jersey acquired the 22-year-old from San Jose before the Vegas expansion draft. The Swiss defender has just six points in 54 NHL games with the Sharks, but still is considered a good prospect after being a first-round pick in 2013.

Mueller will make $775,000 next season and $925,000 in 2018-19.

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

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John Boruk/CSNPhilly.com

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

The opportunity to watch a Briere play again in Philadelphia will be an exciting reality for hockey fans this season.

No, Danny Briere isn’t coming out of retirement as the former Flyers forward has committed to handling the day-to-day operations of the organization’s newest ECHL team.  

However, Briere will be keeping close tabs on his younger son, Carson, who’s currently on the Philadelphia Rebels' 30-man roster and is setting his sights on making the team’s final cuts during training camp.

“It’s great,” Briere said Monday. “Growing up here for most of my life, I love Philly. It’s fun getting to play in the same city that [my dad] did. Whenever I think of him playing, I always think of that playoff run [in 2010] for the Flyers.”

After spending the past two seasons at IceWorks in Aston, Pennsylvania, the NAHL’s (North American Hockey League) Rebels are moving their operation to the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena, where they made the formal announcement on Monday. It will be the organization’s third different home rink in the past four seasons after relocating from the Rio Grande Valley in 2015.

“It was a no-brainer,” team owner Marko Dundovich said. “When the opportunity presented itself, it was very easy. I think it will give the boys a better opportunity to play, get them seen and I think it’s going to continue to grow here, and our business and organization will do much better here.”

The Rebels and junior hockey simply didn’t attract a broad appeal in the Philadelphia suburbs like ownership had hoped, and as a result, attendance lagged as the team typically averaged around 125 fans a game.

“It was the first time we tried Junior A hockey here,” Dundovich said. “If we had a 300-, 400- or 500-person fan base, we would have been OK in Aston, but I think it was tough to sell a junior hockey ticket in Aston. It’s a difficult sell in a small town.”   

Conversely, hockey fans in Philadelphia haven’t had much of an alternative to the Flyers since the Phantoms left the city in 2009 for Glens Falls, New York. Rebels forward Aaron Maguyon, who stays with former Flyers captain Keith Primeau throughout the season, feels the team cannot only fill the 2,500-seat ice rink, but the players will greatly benefit from the college vibe.  

“I think it prepares us for the future and playing college hockey, for sure, so in that way, it’s like a sneak peek for what’s to come," Maguyon said. "I think it helps pull guys closer together. We have restaurants we can go to or just activities we can do in the city."

According to the league website, the NAHL set a new single-season NCAA record with 280-plus commitments, and the Rebels had 12 commit to Divison I programs. Head coach Joe Coombs has built a tier-II junior hockey powerhouse over the past two years. Last season, the Rebels finished with the NAHL’s best regular-season record, advancing to the championship game of the Robertson Cup in Duluth, Minnesota, where they came up short in a 2-0 loss to the Lone Star Brahmas. 

“This is business,” Coombs said. “Let’s bring the game to the people. Over the last two years, we struggled with our attendance. I didn’t even know this place was here — UPenn hockey rink — and we couldn’t think of a better venue right here in University City to try and market our brand of hockey and bring our game to the people.”  

And who knows? You might just see a few former Flyers in the seats, as well.