Halifax GM Cam Russell on Nico Hischier: 'You're getting a star for a long time'

Halifax GM Cam Russell on Nico Hischier: 'You're getting a star for a long time'

It was early April and Cam Russell was enjoying the QMJHL awards banquet when he bumped into an NHL scout with a confession of sorts.

Certainly no team ever wants to lose, but this scout couldn't help but think of Nico Hischier up for grabs and out of reach.

Russell, the general manager of Hischier's junior club, the Halifax Mooseheads, understood the feeling.

"He was wishing his team had dropped down in the standings, because he was talking about Nico — he said, 'Honestly, he has no holes in his game,'" Russell recalled last week in a phone interview with CSNPhilly.com. "And he really doesn't."

Hischier is that highly regarded — and he very well could be destined for the Flyers.

Oh, the beauty of luck.

At the June 23-24 NHL entry draft, only one or maybe two teams will have a chance to pluck the 18-year-old Swiss center. The Devils own the No. 1 pick, while the Flyers are slotted at No. 2 after cashing in at the NHL draft lottery, improbably moving up from the 13th selection to just about front and center.

Hischier is in a two-horse race with Canadian center Nolan Patrick to be the first overall pick. Some believe Patrick is a favorite to go No. 1, leaving Hischier right there for the Flyers.

Russell, who watched Hischier become the QMJHL Rookie of the Year and win the Michael Bossy Trophy (league's best pro prospect), believes that would be a victory for the Flyers.

"You're getting a star and you're getting a star for a long time," Russell said. "You're not getting a second-line center. You're getting a first-line center that's going to lead your team and play lots of minutes and bring you lots of fans in your building because he's just going to be a treat to watch — he's going to be exciting. 

"If you look at the big games that he's played, that's when he's played his best hockey. He's a competitor, he's a gamer and he'll definitely be a star in the NHL."

Hischier racked up 86 points on 38 goals and 48 assists in 57 games with Halifax. He was a plus-20 and added seven points (three goals, four assists) in six playoff games.

Russell first saw Hischier play two years ago at under-18s competition.

"He was playing as an underage there, double underage," Russell said. "I was speaking with an agent as we were looking for a European, and he just kind of made a comment and said, 'Look, I don't have this player here, but this is a guy that you want to keep an eye on down the road.' So almost a couple of years ago he caught my eye."

The Mooseheads were happy he did and made him the sixth overall pick in the 2016 CHL import draft. Soon, Hischier will be another Halifax product in the NHL.

"We've had some real good hockey players go through our program — (Nathan) MacKinnon, (Jonathan) Drouin, (Nikolaj) Ehlers, (Timo) Meier — but he does everything so well," Russell said of Hischier. "He's such a conscientious player, he's so concerned about playing good defensive hockey, doing all the little things right. You're watching a guy who is an absolute star and he's your best defensive player at the same time. Obviously he's a guy that jumps off the page and does some incredible things."

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall has not revealed any of his hand when discussing the No. 2 spot and the NHL readiness of the potential pick.

"I don't know who that player is going to be," Hextall said in late April. "Any player, as you know from my history, they've got to come in and earn it."

There had been buzz of Halifax's having Hischier on loan. Russell confirmed that wasn't the case, which means Hischier will not be eligible for the AHL next season.

So, is he ready for the NHL?

"That'll be determined in training camp," Russell said. "It depends on who drafts him, what their plan is for him. The easiest way to put it is time will tell in training camp. I know he's going to be a great hockey player in the NHL.

"There's potential there that he could be returned to junior, but we'll have to wait and see. I think he's just such a complete hockey player that he can make that step, but we'll just have to wait and see."

Hischier's well-roundedness makes that more than plausible. The lefty-shot has an advanced game and hockey IQ. If there's one thing he may lack, it's what he'll probably gain with time: weight. Hischier is listed at 6-foot, 176 pounds.

"He's just got to get a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger like all 18-year-olds do, but that would be about the only negative thing I can say about him," Russell said.

"When I say the one thing, his size, I'm splitting hairs. The reality is, the game has changed so much. You look at Mitch Marner out there, Johnny Gaudreau — there are so many players that play today that maybe couldn't have played 20 or 30 years ago, but they're exciting, skilled players and they're just so quick and so smart that they have no problems out there."

Hischier's advantages are elusiveness and guile.

"He's so aware of what's going on around him that you don't see him get hit with an open-ice hit," Russell said. "He rarely puts himself in a dangerous position, yet he's the first one on the puck all the time."

Russell added that Hischier brings an excellent attitude because of a "great foundation with his parents."

As for comparisons, Russell, a former NHL defenseman, thinks of Red Wings great Pavel Datsyuk when he sees Hischier.

"He's such a strong offensive player, he's completely fearless — you cannot intimidate him," Russell said. "If you watch him play closely, you'll see that he's the first one on the puck and I've never seen a player roll off hits like he does in the corner. I can't think of a time when he was run over or contained in the corner, he's just so strong, so quick and so agile with the puck. 

"Whoever gets him, he's going to be a real fun player to watch for a long time."

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.