Post-Olympic stretch run will favor fresh Flyers

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Post-Olympic stretch run will favor fresh Flyers

When the Olympics end and the Flyers’ schedule resumes after a week of what will surely feel like training camp in February, Craig Berube should have reason to smile.

The stretch run to the playoffs favors the Flyers from the standpoint of the schedule. They have 23 games in 46 days -- essentially, a game every other day.

Better yet, 14 of those games are home, versus just nine away.

Plus, the Flyers will have just one extended road trip and that’s to Florida and Pittsburgh -- not all over Western Canada and the U.S. like they did on their five-game, post-Christmas road swing.

For a team that is sitting in third place (playoffs) in the Metropolitan Division and seventh overall in the Eastern Conference, you couldn’t ask for more.

“We put ourselves in a good spot,” said Berube, who is easily also on the short list for the Jack Adams Coach of the Year award, along with Tampa’s Jon Cooper and Anaheim’s Bruce Boudreau.

“In saying that, we play a lot of good teams. Even though you are at home, it’s a one-game-at-a time thing. We have to make sure that after this break we can compete and play at a high level right away. Right away.”

Every NHL organization worries how its players will return. Will they stay in reasonable shape? Or will they lose too much of their conditioning?

The Flyers' first game back is Feb. 27 at Wells Fargo Center against San Jose.

“We have a program set up already that hopefully they will follow,” Berube said. “It is not mandatory. Hopefully they are good pros and follow it. Keep yourself ready. I think the break is good, but make sure you're working out and training. That’s important.”

On Saturday, many Flyers began their treks to mini-vacations (see story). On Sunday, the five players going to the Sochi Olympics left for Russia.

The Flyers welcome a stretch run that is easier on the travel side.

“The month of March, it seems like we have one-day road trips,” Scott Hartnell said. “Looked like in November and December we were gone the whole time. Seemed to be on the road, not know what your room number was, so many.

“It will be exciting to be home. Get some groceries that won’t go bad in the fridge while you’re gone for weeks. That’s one thing I am looking forward to and so are the guys with families. They want to see their kids.”

Defenseman Braydon Coburn said the Flyers need to take advantage of playing at home. Earlier in January, the Flyers were in the midst of a 10-game home winning streak.

They are 16-10-1 at home versus 14-13-5 on the road. Most years, they're a better road club. Not this year.

“The fact we have a lot of home games and not a lot of tough travel is good for us,” Coburn said. “That being said, we have to take advantage of it. When you get an opportunity like that to have games in your conference at home down the stretch, it’s something you can’t take for granted.

“You have to keep your foot on the accelerator. It’s something Chief has been stressing to us. Get your rest over the break, then it’s full steam ahead to the finish line. When we come in here every day we get a chance to look at the standings and it’s a jumbled mess.

“The parity within our division and our conference is remarkable this season considering where it has been at in past years.”

The Flyers need to find separation between themselves and divisional opponents, such as Columbus and the Rangers. Yet they play the Rangers in only a home-and-home in March and Columbus once in April here.

They will also face the Washington Capitals in a home-and-home the first week of March, as well.

That’s not enough games to gain separation, which is why it’s more important for them to play well against all conference opponents.

“It kind of works in our favor playing a lot of home games,” Matt Read said. “It’s a tough league. Any team can come into Wells Fargo [Center] and win a game.

“We have to take every home game and play smart for 60 minutes and build as a team again. Keep our playoff spot and move from there.”

Berube hopes his players are mentally, as well as physically, refreshed when they return. Non-Olympians have the option of going back on Feb. 19. Camps open for everyone on Feb. 24.

“Everyone should be rejuvenated coming back,” Berube said. “Guys going to the Olympics, it will be different, obviously. Guys staying here are going to have a lot of energy and ready to go from that time off.

“Not traveling, not grinding, the games. It’s not so much practicing. It’s the grind, the schedule, the travel, playing the games. Not doing that for a couple of weeks will leave them fresh.”

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.