Devils’ Hischier latest in line of skilled Swiss forwards

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When Nico Hischier was born in 1999 in the mountainside town of Naters, exactly one Swiss born-and-trained player had been in the NHL – for exactly one forgettable game.

After Pauli Jaks tended goal for two periods in 1995, it took until 2001 for Reto Von Arx to become the first Swiss skater to make his NHL debut and many more years before the country had its first international hockey hero in Mark Streit.

Switzerland sent goaltenders David Aebischer and Martin Gerber, Streit and fellow defensemen Yannick Weber and Roman Josi to the NHL as its population surpassed 8 million and more money went into developing the sport. Last year, Switzerland finally topped the charts when the New Jersey Devils made Hischier the first Swiss to go No. 1 in the NHL draft.

He is the latest in a suddenly strong line of skilled Swiss forwards emerging as NHL stars.

”It starts at a young age,” Hischier said. ”There are some good coaches and some really good teams that you can develop (with). … They do a great job to be able to go practice and be able to do school. There’s special schools where you can do both. It’s all part of it.”

Hischier is in the spotlight this weekend as he and the Devils return to his junior town of Bern, Switzerland, to practice and play an exhibition game before facing the Edmonton Oilers in Sweden to open the season. He is the poster boy for this generation of Swiss talent that includes Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter, San Jose’s Timo Meier, Nashville’s Kevin Fiala and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi.

Those five players have already combined to play almost five times the number of games of all the Swiss forwards who came before them.

”Swiss hockey’s been growing a lot over the years and we’ve been making steps,” Meier said. ”Mark Streit and then Nino Niederreiter got drafted pretty high. That was the age where I was kind of realizing that’s where I want to be and that’s what I’m working for. Just kind of watching these guys work their way into the NHL was pretty exciting and made me want to be there some day.”

Streit, who retired last year, understands his place in Switzerland’s hockey pantheon, right there with Aebischer and Gerber as pioneers. He’s proud of how Swiss hockey has finally earned some respect internationally.

”Ten, 12, 15 years ago, nobody really talked about Swiss hockey,” Streit said. ”Only a few, a handful, had been drafted. I think now, a few guys left a mark, so the teams know Swiss guys can play hockey.”

Streit is still Switzerland’s standard-bearer in hockey after playing parts of 10 seasons for the Canadiens, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins, and winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017. He was an inspiration to Josi, Weber, Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller and Capitals defensive prospect Jonas Siegenthaler.

”Mark Streit was the first player, not goaltender, who made it in the NHL, and he showed a lot of people in Switzerland, including me and a lot of other guys, that it’s possible to make it with a lot of hard work,” said Josi, who is now captain of the Predators. ”He kind of opened the doors for us, and since then it’s more and more.”

Hischier is opening the door for the next generation of players. Last summer, he skated with younger players and recalled that it felt weird to be admired. He realized he had a duty to help grow the sport back home and serve as a Streit-like inspiration.

”There’s more hockey players who’s going to play hockey in Switzerland,” Hischier said this week. ”They have a lot of young players. It’s just a good thing for our country.”

It might take some time for another transcendent talent like Hischier to come along, but forward Valentin Nussbaumer is a top prospect for the 2019 draft and center Theo Rochette a top prospect in 2020. Not surprisingly, those players followed the path through the Canadian Hockey League junior ranks that worked so well for Niederreiter, Meier and Hischier.

Streit notices the trend of more Swiss players playing in the CHL and how programs with combined schooling and hockey training have helped create better habits. But he attributes the breakthrough of so many talented Swiss forwards mostly to a more mature approach in the process of trying to make it in the NHL.

”We were lacking a little bit of the perseverance – the hard work and perseverance,” Streit said. ”I think now guys have that. They had a lot of skill back in the day, but guys came over and they just couldn’t really make their way through and establish themselves. I think now the guys are willing to work hard and suck it up even in the minors and go play in the CHL.”

Niederreiter went to the Western Hockey League, while Meier and Hischier played for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to get used to North America and the smaller ice surface. Hischier didn’t look out of place at all as a rookie last season, putting up 20 goals and 32 assists and playing all 82 games as an 18-year-old.

”I don’t think he gets the credit that he deserves for how good of a season he had and so far this season he looks even better,” Devils linemate Taylor Hall said. ”Nico, he’s only played two seasons really in North America, so he’s still getting used to the amount of games we play and how much hockey we really have to go through. That’s why I really think the sky’s the limit for him and the more and more he plays over here on the small ice and just with the pace of play, he’s only going to get better and better.”

With Nussbaumer, Rochette and others Swiss players taking their talents to North America at young ages and a pipeline developing, Hischier won’t be the last Swiss likely to make a major impact in the NHL.

”We’re such a small country, it’s actually crazy,” Siegenthaler said. ”There’s more players going over to North America every year. It’s a good development for us. I think the next few years there should be even more players. I think it’s going pretty good for Switzerland so far.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.