The past year was a big one for Cale Fleury. A solid rookie year in the AHL led to a strong showing in the 2019 pre-season, and eventually a regular NHL role to start the season. As with almost all young players in the NHL, they are prone to mistakes, and Fleury was no different in that regard. As the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff hopes dwindled, Fleury was sent back to the Laval Rocket to bolster the minor-league club’s chances at a post-season berth.
Much like Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s AHL stint, Fleury’s was not a long one, but served as a confidence booster and teaching point for the young defender. Fleury played in just 14 games, recording five points, but more importantly he used the time to hone the skills he used to great effect last season. He provided the team with a skilled offensive defender on the blue line, but also a steady hand who can more than hold his own defensively on any pairing. With Xavier Ouellet called up late in the season, Fleury had to jump into a similar role and keep the momentum rolling on the back end.
Fourteen games is not a large sample size, and with the AHL’s embargo on ice time stats it’s hard to gauge how much Fleury played on a given night. However, Joël Bouchard had no issue with trusting Fleury heavily in his rookie season, and his charge stepped back into his top-four role without much issue. Given Bouchard’s heavy rotation of players in all situations Fleury got a healthy dose of time running the power play, working the penalty kill, and eating big minutes at even strength, with a number of different partners.
The strongest parts of Fleury’s game have not changed much since his first season. He’s a smooth skater, able to carry the puck through all three zones with relative ease, and that allows him to diversify the offensive attack in Laval, as opposed to relying on just the forwards to gain the zone with the puck. That mobility also allows him to manoeuvre off the blue line, higher into attacking areas in the offensive zone, making him a danger to goalies from around the faceoff dots as well. While his slapshot is threatening on its own, Fleury’s ability to utilize a precise wristshot made him a far bigger scoring threat than before, and he’s used it to great effect.
Great effort by Cale Fleury for his first AHL goal of the year, add another assist for Kotkaniemi on the play. pic.twitter.com/7zw4WiVvHv— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 9, 2020
The goal showcases the shining parts of his offensive game, as Fleury jumps back into the play after a loose puck, uses some deception to open up a new lane, then uses that lane to wire a shot by the goalie. It’s the kind of attack and aggressiveness that Bouchard likes to see in his team, and Fleury has that in spades, acting as a consistent shot-producer on the back end.
That aggressive instinct carries over to his work on the defensive side of the puck as well. He’s known for throwing out devastating, clean hits in spite of his wiry frame. At the NHL level he dished out plenty of heavy hits, and while not as prominent at the AHL level this year, that was still a part of his game. He doesn’t need to catch people unaware with their head down, or coming across the middle. He times his hits just as players touch the puck to send them flying, and immediately regains control of the puck on the play; a perfect outcome for a hit in the modern game of hockey.
With his young age and aggressive nature, he is prone to defensive lapses or miscues. It’s part of developing as a player. The mistakes are not something that can’t be fixed with some coaching and more learning as a player, but they do stick out when they occur. Sometimes his big hits leave his partner exposed, and occasionally he misreads where he should go with a pass or clearing attempt and keeps the opposing team on the attack.
Continuing to work on his awareness for certain situations will help him reach the next level in his career. He has great groundwork in place with his skills, now he just has to work on the coachable side of things, like positioning and jumping up to make a hit at the right time.
Fleury’s season was cut short, not just by the pandemic, but by an injury in pre-game warm-ups for Laval at the end of February. He didn’t have enough time to settle into his role in Laval, but all signs pointed to him getting his early-season form back.
Some fans may be disappointed that he didn’t stick all year in the NHL, but the games in the AHL will have served him well. Nothing is promised in the NHL, and as good as he was early on, he did have his struggles in the top league and needed to find his form again. Based on the way he played, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fleury as the leading challenger for a spot on the right side in Montreal again next year. All the skills are still there, and now he’s got another year of experience to grow and improve on.