Cale Fleury is evolving. Or at least, if he isn’t evolving just yet, he is showing glimpses of a greater potential than what we’ve seen before.
The defencemen has never really been offensive by nature. Sure, he had some respectable numbers with the Kootenay ICE in his draft year, but he also finished a minus-61. Plus/minus isn’t a great stat, but it’s quite accurate in this case — the ICE weren’t good. Fleury had to try to score his way to some victories.
He was then traded to the Regina Pats and found his identity. From then on, Fleury played rush defence. He stopped attackers at his blue line, and if he couldn’t, he plastered them to the boards in his zone, took the puck, and passed it out.
A simple recipe, but a successful one.
That being said some of his offensive power was clearly left dormant, because Fleury is now pulling off moves we’ve not seen before — not in Junior, not really in the AHL and definitely not in the NHL. And he’s doing that with just a third of a season in the top professional league under his belt. Impressive.
I don’t think any other blue-liner on the Habs has been actively trying dangles like these since the start of the season. There’s a formula at work here, but it doesn’t come together without a massive dose of confidence and crisp execution.
Fleury moves his feet. He wants to receive in motion so he can either find a good shooting lane or drag defenders out of position. His inside-outside movement forces opponents skating up to him in the wide lane to block his shot. When they get close enough, Fleury opens up, makes the defender think he is shooting and go down as a result.
This is the young defenceman’s window. He can move inside the dots and attack down low. The opponent has left his feet and can’t counter the movement.
Fleury will have to vary his moves at some point if he wants to remain effective or opposing teams may start to expect it. But right now, he sells the dangle so well he places opponents in a no-win scenario: either they back off and Fleury attacks the space in front of him to find a good shooting lane, or they get too close and the defenceman pulls off his moves.
At the start of the season, Fleury went into a stretch of games where he didn’t use the space he had, content just springing pucks on net from far away. Well, it looks like someone has encouraged him to use his mobility and deceptive skill level to his advantage. That, or he is just getting a lot more confident. Either way it’s a great sign of improvement.
Those dangles might not resurface for a while — Detroit and Vancouver are good teams to experiment offensively against — but now we know that they are part of Fleury’s repertoire. Maybe they could lead to more offensive involvement down the line.
I also added another interesting clip at the end of the video above. Fleury, instead of hammering the puck on net after picking it up at the blue line, got his head up and found the stick of Joel Armia skating through the slot. His awareness improved the chance of his play ending up in the back of the net significantly; a deflection is much better than a straight point shot.
Joel Armia’s blossoming offence
Armia is another player in the middle of a breakout season. His goal ultimately was waved off, but the call didn’t erase his dominant play.
The Finnish winger did about everything well on the sequence. He consistently maximized the opportunities he got with the puck by showing poised and smart movements.
He attracted defenders on himself to free teammates for shots or give them time to handle the puck, moved outside of the defence to find a quiet area to shoot, supported the cycle, read the opposing breakout and stopped it, and won inside positioning in the slot.
The last element ultimately led to his goal. He spun off his defender, beat him to the net and found a rebound to jam in.
Armia is establishing himself as a legitimate threat inside the top six with sequences like this. He isn’t a perfect player, but his strengths far outweigh his flaws since the start of the season.
One of those strengths? His crazy range and puck control.