Canadiens prospects Cale Fleury and Will Bitten get set for the Memorial Cup
Fleury’s Regina team looking to become the second straight hosts to hoist the Cup
For the second straight season, a team with a Canadiens prospect is hosting the Memorial Cup, and after Jeremiah Addison and then-Canadiens prospect Mikhail Sergachev won the cup, Cale Fleury is hoping his Regina Pats could be the next team to host and win the championship.
Hosting the tournament without winning - or making - the league championship does come with its challenges. The Pats have not played since April 2nd, when they lost Game 7 to the eventual WHL champion Swift Current Broncos in the first round. And with that long layoff comes a double-edged sword. Sure, you’re rested, but you’re also lacking game action.
But Windsor was the third team since 2012 to win the title despite the layoff.
“Once it happens once, then everyone else has a reference point,” said Sam Cosentino who is Sportsnet’s CHL Game Analyst. “From that reference point, you take what you think will work for your group and once you have that combination, there becomes a new reference point. You kind of add them up, layer them and taylor it to your personnel and that is potentially what makes it easier for Regina than anyone because they have more experience to draw on.”
Cosentino points out that the two WHL teams are on opposite sides of the spectrum. While Regina hasn’t played since April 2, it took Swift Current a record 26 games to win the WHL title.
“If you’re comparing them directly to Swift Current, it probably benefits them to have the time off because Swift Current played the most games of any team in the CHL to get here. So there’s no doubt that fatigue is going to have to play a factor,” he said.
Regina is led by a deep group including Josh Mahura, Sam Steel and the aforementioned Fleury. Fleury was acquired by Regina from the Kootenay Ice, where he was chosen as captain at 17 years old.
In his draft year, Fleury struggled. His team had only 14 wins, and Fleury was a -61. His season dropped him to the third round when the Canadiens drafted him. But the numbers were not necessarily indicative of his potential. The move to Regina allowed him to improve.
“When you’re a good player on a bad team, you take everything on your shoulders and you try to fix everything yourself. You play more minutes than you should, you try to do more than your capabilities allow you to do,” said Cosentino. “In Kootenay, he had to be the top defenceman, he had to be the top offensive defenceman, he had to be essentially one of their top producers if Kootenay was to have any success. So that’s a lot of responsibility for a young guy to put on his shoulders. And a young guy who, quite frankly, wasn’t ready to handle all of that.”
“When you get traded to a better team, you have better support, you have a coaching staff that can put you in better situations where you’re not always matched up against the best all the time. You can allow your game to grow. Your practice habits become better because you know you’re not going to be playing 30-35 minutes a night,” he said. “So, I think just by moving to a better team allowed him to be more of himself and allowed him to more like the player he will become. Where he can still provide some of the physical play that he had but he’s added that layer of being able to be a threat on the offensive side which he was only by proxy when he was in Kootenay but now he’s doing it because of better match up situations, more power play time, more responsibility but taking less responsibility onto his own shoulders.”
Fleury went from 11 goals and 27 assists in 70 games last year to 12 goals and 39 assists in 68 games this year. He also added four assists in the seven game series against Swift Current.
The Hamilton Bulldogs are the Ontario Hockey League champions, and have Habs prospect Will Bitten.
Bitten was the Canadiens third-round pick in 2016, sandwiched between two NHL defencemen, first-round pick Sergachev and fourth-round pick Victor Mete. Bitten was in a similar situation to Fleury in that he was the best player on a bad Flint Firebirds team. His numbers since his draft year have dropped off. But in a trade to Hamilton, he re-joined his Flint coach, John Gruden.
“His numbers in his draft year would have told you he’s a top-six guy in the NHL,” Cosentino said. “That’s probably not the case. He’s more of a third line guy who’s reliable, who’s going to help you on the penalty kill, who’s going to work hard, is a little bit of a rat.”
Cosentino says he feels Bitten could become be a third-line NHL player who will score enough to make it hard to take him out of the lineup. Bitten has already signed his entry-level contract and will make his professional debut next year. Cosentino says Bitten is a guy who could get 30 points a year while playing 12 minutes a night,
“That’s not a bad thing. You still need to have those players in your lineup and if you can draft and develop them under your own systems then the transition to moving from a Junior to a pro becomes a lot easier,” he said.
Bitten is not a top offensive weapon in Hamilton, that distinction goes to Robert Thomas. But Bitten’s role for the Bulldogs is potentially indicative of his future role in the NHL.
“He’s not going to be the main offensive piece but he’s going to be a guy where if you need him at times to step up in your lineup to provide you with offence he can do that but more or less he’s going to be an energy guy, a checking guy, a responsible guy, a penalty kill guy, a hard working guy and a real model citizen who you’re not going to have to manage off the ice.”
This year’s Memorial Cup has a different feel to it with four teams that have not been to a recent tournament. Regina has been there last, and even that was back in 2001. The Quebec champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan haven’t been back since 1999. The Swift Current Broncos were last there in 1993. The Hamilton Bulldogs will be making their first appearance since moving from Belleville after the 2014-2015 season. The Bulls last made the tournament in 2008, and a Hamilton team’s last appearance was in 1976.
The city of Hamilton hosted the tournament in 1990 but did not have a team.
For Cosentino, the appearance of small market teams in the Memorial Cup is a great thing for the CHL.
“I think the success of the Canadian Hockey League is predicated on what your small market teams are able to do,” he said. “Everyone knows that teams like Calgary and Edmonton are owned by their parent NHL clubs and have things afforded to them that other teams simply don’t have. But when you get a town like Swift Current, the smallest market in the CHL where literally the Broncos are that market’s NHL, NFL, NBA team... It means so much more to that community and that is the lifeblood of what the CHL is all about.”
Bathurst is likely in the top-five smallest markets and Cosentino says they could be third-smallest after Owen Sound and Swift Current.
“While I have a great appreciation for the Kelowna’s and the Quebec’s and the London’s of the world, I’m really happy to see some smaller market teams where it really matters. Where that is the only thing that’s going to be happening in that city or those two cities for the next 10 days. It’s going to be ‘what did the Titan do?’ ‘How did they play last night?’ ‘What time is the game on?’ ‘Did you see the highlights?’ ‘What are they saying in the news?,’” he said.
“For me, the lifeblood of the CHL is your ability to see your small markets rise to the occasion and play in these events and this is a really good example of it.”
The Memorial Cup kicks off Friday night when Fleury’s Pats take on Bitten’s Bulldogs. The entire tournament will be on the Sportsnet and TVA Sports networks. Cosentino will be taking his place in the broadcast booth with his usual partner, R.J. Broadhead.