Flyers

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."

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

usa-nolan-patrick-ron-hextall.jpg
USA Today Images

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

With the Flyers' elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team's third-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft was officially transferred over to the Red Wings.

What was originally a fourth-round selection in the acquisition of goaltender Petr Mrazek was upgraded to a third-rounder once Mrazek won five regular-season games and the Flyers qualified for the postseason.

The Flyers could potentially still owe the Red Wings a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL draft if Mrazek is re-signed. However, that seems unlikely with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth already under contract for next season and Mrazek’s poor play over the final five weeks of the regular season.

In all likelihood, the Flyers will have the 19th overall pick in the June draft, which is scheduled for June 22-23 at American Airlines Center in Dallas. If the Blue Jackets are eliminated before the Eastern Conference Finals, then they will select 18th with the Flyers slotted in at the 19th selection.

Once again, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will be watching intently during Saturday’s NHL draft lottery, where the Flyers could also acquire the St. Louis Blues' first-round selection.

The Flyers have a 95 percent chance of obtaining the Blues' first pick as compensation in the Brayden Schenn trade that was completed at last year’s draft in Chicago. 

The Blues' pick is top-10 protected, but they have only a five percent chance of moving into the top three — 1.5 percent for No. 1 overall, 1.7 for No. 2, 1.8 for No. 3, 91.8 for No. 14 and 3.2 for No. 15. So, either the Blues draft in the top three, they remain at 14 or fall back to 15.

However, as Hextall discovered just a year ago, anything is possible.

Last year, the Flyers made the monumental leap from the 13th-worst record in the league to obtaining the second overall pick — a lottery move that had just a 2.4 percent chance of falling in their favor. With that selection, the Flyers chose Nolan Patrick.

Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and a future cornerstone blueliner. 

The NHL draft lottery is held in Toronto.

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to CapFriendly.com. The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.