Cale Fleury’s progression over the past year has been striking. He’s showing a more rounded and developed game, and is arguably more effective in his role playing against professionals than he was in seasons prior against Junior competition.
The defenceman’s mobility and physical play have come to define him. He accustomed us to puck rushes in his draft year, taking on more of an offensive role for the talent-starved Kootenay ICE, but his identity really formed after a trade to the Regina Pats. There, he shut down the WHL’s top players and prepared his team’s attack with simpler passing plays.
Fleury has continued to improve in this role. He is now a stronger and more confident version of himself. If we exclude Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs (an uninspired team performance that should be banished from everyone’s memory), he has managed to elevate himself from his competition in all of his outings.
Play away from the puck seems to be the most valued aspect of a defenceman’s game for Montreal’s coaching staff. No rookie has earned a spot unless he could be trusted in his own end. Josh Brook struggled with risk management in the pre-season (hitting the first option on a breakout, urgency with the puck, timing himself to jump on the attack, etc.). He also had trouble picking up his assignments in his zone. So even if he was the more highly touted defence prospect coming into camp, he was sent packing for Laval. Meanwhile, Fleury now prepares himself for what would be his fifth pre-season game.
With just one year of AHL experience under his belt, Fleury seems to take pride in being engaged on the defensive side of the play, plastering opponents into the boards when the occasion arises. He isn’t the highly switchable blue-liner he should become in a couple of years, capable of recognizing breakdowns in coverage ahead of time and reacting in a second, but he positions himself soundly at a close-to-NHL level. His mobility allows him to close on opponents if he is ever a step behind.
He has built himself an arsenal of strong defensive mechanics. They allow him to stir opponents toward low-danger areas and adjust to rapid opposing movements. To stop incoming skaters off the rush, he keeps a strong athletic position: knee bent and weight centred over his skates, stick extended toward the puck but not overreaching (which would place him off balance).
He doesn’t give opposing forwards any openings. If they move laterally, he can easily switch his weight and move to block their path, angling them to the boards. If they attempt to shoot or pass, his stick denies the necessary lane.
He contains opponents quite well against the wall when he manages to push them there. Once again, he has his stick on the puck and uses his free arm to deny cutbacks. He aims to control the hips of the attackers to restrain their moves. When he sees an opening to take away the puck, he seals possession with his body, getting in front of the opposition to deny them access and start the breakout.
His gap control still needs some work, as we’ve seen this pre-season. He tends to back away from the offensive zone a bit too early on changes of possession, which leaves space for rushing forwards to manoeuvre in the neutral zone. That being said, rush defence was a strength for the defenceman throughout his young career. Once he adjusts to the higher tempo of play, he likely won’t be as shy to take away space from attackers as soon as they try to breakout.
What makes Fleury an interesting option for the Habs going into the season is what he provides on top of his solid base of defensive mechanics: his puck-moving abilities. His transition play gives him a leg up on players like Karl Alzner, Christian Folin, and possibly even Ben Chiarot.
Fleury has shown himself willing to do extra work on puck retrievals to send his team on the attack in controlled ways. He shoulder-checks consistently to find outlets and scan the ice for incoming pressure. He picks the puck up in motion and in deceptive ways to send false signals to the forecheck, which opens passing lanes.
He also waits for opponents to get onto him before passing to free more space for teammates. When the forecheck is too close and he can’t make a controlled play, he opts to initiate contact with the opposition to stop their movement, seal possession, and let a teammate attempt a breakout pass.
Fleury likely won’t become a high-end puck-mover. He doesn’t have the elite skill needed to consistently beat a couple of opponents on breakouts. Yet his confidence and willingness to use his multiple tricks will allow him to find some outlets stay-at-home defencemen wouldn’t attempt or couldn’t execute.
His mobility also gives him more potential on the offensive side of the puck once he gains confidence. Right now, he passes on opportunities to jump further in the offensive zone to shoot from the top of the circle. He has a hard shot and could do some damage by releasing closer to the slot, or at least create rebounds for his teammates.
All in all, despite his lack of experience and his somewhat conservative play at this point, Fleury has shown himself to be the best option to push faster transitions for this Habs team going into the season. He possesses the same qualities as his direct competition — energy making up for experience in some cases— while also being a more effective puck-handler.
Unless his performance dips significantly in the final couple of games, Fleury should impose himself as this camp’s suprise addition to the main roster.