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Laval Rocket season review: Cale Fleury surpassed all expectations

It didn’t take long for the first-year defender to establish himself as one of the Rocket’s best players this season.

Club de hockey Canadien

Cale Fleury was an intriguing prospect heading into last summer within the Montreal Canadiens organization. He was not yet 20 years old but was eligible to play in the AHL since he would turn 20 before the new year and had completed four seasons of Junior hockey. It was a matter of having him turn pro or play an over-age season in the WHL. After a strong showing in the rookie camp and tournament, the team offered him his entry level contract, and he joined the Laval Rocket just in time for the start of the season.

With Shea Weber out injured and the right side of Montreal’s defence lacking some firepower, there was every chance in the world for Fleury to step up and possibly steal a role on the NHL roster as well. He ended up staying in the AHL all year, and that was likely the best move for the rookie defender. The Canadiens are taking their time handling player development, and in Fleury it may be paying off.

His 23 points (9G, 14A) are not a massive amount of production for the blue-liner, but his rookie season far and away surpassed all expectations the club might have had on him.

Like many rookies on Joël Bouchard’s roster, Fleury was not thrown into the deep end, instead starting on the third pairing and slowly moving up the lineup as needed. It didn’t take long for him to force his coach’s hand, ending up as a top-three defender for much of the season in Laval.

He quickly formed a dynamic pairing with Xavier Ouellet, and the duo not only reinvigorated a stale offence but helped develop Fleury into a much more well-rounded player.

Ouellet was moved at the end of the season to help Josh Brook adjust on another pairing, and Fleury was then added to a pairing with Karl Alzner. That decision was make to help make things a bit easier on the NHL veteran, showing the level of trust Fleury had earned from his coaches.

First and foremost, he is an offensive-minded player on the blue line. He is always looking to make plays happen and never passes up a chance to direct pucks at opposing goaltenders. However, unlike Shea Weber, he is not waiting back at the point to bomb shots; his mobility allows him to move freely through the zone to create chances for his team. Fleury had no issues jumping up toward the net like a forward, and it often caught opposing defenders napping, allowing him to generate goals or at least high-danger chances.

His patience to find clear shooting lanes also made him a major benefit on the Rocket power play. He would collect pucks at the point and calmly wait for defenders to move or open up space for him before making his move on net. While he does have a more-than-capable slapshot, Fleury’s wrist-shot was utilized with great effect in these situations, allowing him snap off quick shots to beat goalies.

On the other side of the puck, he had no issues with the increased physicality of the professional game, battling hard in his own zone and occasionally dishing out devastating bodychecks to opponents. There is more to his defensive ability than his -16 rating shows, and factoring in the thin lineup in Laval most nights, he deserves to be commended for his work on the back end over his rookie season.

For Fleury to take the next step he does need to begin rounding out his defensive game, and some added depth behind him should help with that. He is not lacking in defensive awareness, but expecting a 20-year-old to carry most of the weight for the majority of the season is a big ask.

Taking another step offensively should be in the cards with the experience of one season and reinforcements joining the club. A very useful power-play threat, Fleury should begin generating some more at even strength next season. That will help him establish himself as a top call-up option.

As it stands, Fleury is right on the cusp of being an NHL player for Montreal. Their third spot on right defence is wide open with Noah Juulsen, Christian Folin, and Josh Brook seving as his competition for that spot.

After a great rookie season, the expectations for Fleury are much higher heading into next season. Bouchard knows what he has in the player, and Fleury himself has a full season of professional experience to grow on and use to improve his game this summer. He’ll be relied on as a regular top-four option in Laval again, likely playing big minutes on special teams.

A boost in his offensive numbers, and hopefully a playoff berth to show off his play under presssure is the expectation for Fleury and his group of fellow prospects next year. He has the talent to be a big part of a post-season run, and now is the time for another step forward for the Calgary native.