While he currently is not signed to an entry-level contract, Cale Fleury could very well begin his professional career this season. Thanks in part to his birthday, the Canadiens have options for the third-round pick, including having him play the year in the AHL if they wanted him among their professional ranks in 2018.
It’s not a matter of room either, as in the AHL right now the only right-shot defencemen is Brett Lernout, who, entering his fourth AHL season, hasn’t proven to be an NHL-calibre prospect. With Weber out, it stands to reason that Montreal will give Lernout every chance to prove otherwise, but that leaves the Laval Rocket with the offensively minded Matt Taormina and perhaps one of the rookie Czechs — all left-handed blue-liners — on the defensive side of things.
Fleury grew exponentially as a player after being traded to the Regina Pats this past season. He wasn’t burdened with the Herculean task of playing every conceivable role like he was in Kootenay, and it allowed him to prove his worth as a steady option at both ends of the ice. He would likely take on a similar role should he join the roster in the AHL, and for the Canadiens to begin the next stage of development for a prospect like Fleury it’s a winning situation.
Yet, we saw just last year that rookie defencemen have every chance of making the NHL roster during the pre-season. Victor Mete proved that just last year, after a strong CHL career, coupled with his style of play, earned the former London Knight a massive role alongside Shea Weber last year.
It’s almost a broken record at this point, but Weber’s long-term absence to start the year is a massive blow to the Montreal Canadiens. It’s not easy to replace his minutes, and even harder to replace them with a player capable of his defensive prowess and offensive production. Jeff Petry will help answer that call, as he did last year to great success, but now the Canadiens have more open spots on their right side on their second and third pairings. Noah Juulsen is the likely candidate to claim a role, but there is still another spot entirely up for grabs between veterans and newly signed rookies, and Fleury will be part of those discussions.
While there is almost assuredly a spot for him in the AHL, a strong showing at the Rookie Showcase and in the pre-season could lead to at least some NHL time. This isn’t to say that Fleury would take a similar track as Mete. In fact, matching the play of Jeff Petry and Noah Juulsen in the pre-season would be an incredible feat for the 19-year-old.
If Fleury were to impress enough, he’d more than likely be taking on third-pairing minutes, with hopefully favourable matchups to help hone his skills at the highest level. That’s something the team could afford to do with the veteran presence of Petry and the trustworthy play of Juulsen on the second duo. When the roster regains it’s healthy status, Fleury can just as easily slide down to the AHL level and continue to grow in a more involved role for Joël Bouchard.
And that may be a crucial point: the coaching staff overhaul is a boon for incoming prospects and young stars. The old guard was clearly past its best-by date, and their tactics (or lack thereof) showed at both the NHL and AHL levels. With a high-level CHL coach in Laval and fresh recruits in charge of the Canadiens’ personnel, prospects should have better guidance throughout the organization.
Regardless of which level he ends up at this year, there is no bad option for him. If he signs an NHL deal he can earn professional experience, and for a team looking to retool on the fly, having another young prospect become that much closer to NHL-ready is a plus. If the Canadiens choose to send him back to Regina without an entry-level contract, he has another year to improve upon what he started this past year.
It’s a serious blow to lose Weber for an extended period, but his injury opens doors for prospects like Cale Fleury to try to stake a claim at the professional level. With the situation being the way it is in Montreal, there are worse things to have happen than a player under 20 years old showing he has what it takes to get on the roster this year.