Local hockey fans may have a very good reason to cheer for a Western Conference team in the National Hockey League next season.
Mitchell Russell, a 21-year-old forward who grew up in Orillia and played minor hockey in Barrie, was recently signed by the NHL club after five stellar seasons in the Ontario Hockey League to wrap up his junior career. His OHL career included stops with the Owen Sound Attack and the North Bay Battalion.
This past season in North Bay, Russell tallied 88 points (41G, 47A) in 64 games, which put him 10th overall in OHL scoring.
The six-foot, 193-pound right-winger was selected in the first round (20th overall) of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection by Owen Sound, before heading to North Bay halfway through the 2018-19 season.
His offensive production took off in the 2019-20 campaign when he had 21 goals and 21 assists in 51 games. However, he also carried a minus-29 rating that season, but his defensive game took a major turn this past year when he jumped to a plus-33 with a team that finished second in the Eastern Conference. He added a solid 11 goals and 11 assists in 11 playoff games before being swept by the eventual OHL champions, the Hamilton Bulldogs, in the conference final.
Russell, who had been passed over in the NHL Draft, has now landed a shot at his NHL dream through the Sharks in northern California.
San Jose Sharks interim general manager Joe Will said the NHL club has come to terms with a Russell on a standard entry-level contract. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“Mitchell is a character player and leader on the ice with good production that helps his team win,” Will said in a statement. “He has a strong pedigree as a skater who was selected in the first round of the OHL Draft.”
On the Cuda Confidential podcast, which is linked to the Sharks' American Hockey League affiliate, Russell said he grew up in Orillia before his family moved to Barrie.
“I had three really solid years of minor hockey in Barrie and I feel I had a lot of coaches, skating coaches and trainers that really took their time with me and made it a really easy transition,” Russell said.
In the regular season with the Battalion, Russell led all North Bay skaters in goals (41), plus-minus (plus-33), power-play goals (13), shorthanded goals (three), and shots (241). The forward also set new career-highs in every offensive category and he was one of only 15 skaters league-wide to eclipse the 40-goal mark.
During his four seasons in the OHL, Russell registered 161 points (78 goals, 83 assists) in 239 regular-season games with the Owen Sound and North Bay.
Internationally, he played in six games for Canada Red at the 2017 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, collecting two points (one goal, one assist) and helping the team to a second-place finish at the tournament.