Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs prospects playing at the junior (OHL, WHL) and collegiate level(USHL, NCAA).
The WHL this season has been a farm for future Habs defencemen; most of Montreal's recent blue-line prospects were drafted from that league.
The Western Hockey League is often viewed as a bigger, rougher environment where physical play is preferred over the faster pace of eastern Junior, and it might be perceived internally by the Habs as a good breeding ground for back-end talent.
After drafting Victor Mete in 2016 — betting on a quick, elusive player — none of 2017’s defensive additions are under 6'1”. They are all made from the same mould: a combination of size and good skating ability that fits the Western league.
While in theory those characteristics make them project better at the NHL level, as of now, no defencemen from the last draft looks to be able to make the same big jump that Mete did this year, which is more a testament to the talent of the diminutive defenceman than the potential of the 2017 class. But, there's one from the pack who could fetch a contract from the Habs in the coming months and start his pro career as soon as next season: Cale Fleury.
According to the CHL-AHL agreement: “players drafted and playing for CHL teams are ineligible to play in the professional minor leagues (AHL, ECHL) until they are 20 years old (by December 31 of that year) or have completed four years in major juniors.”
As Vince Duquette explained it, Fleury has his birthday in November and will then be 20 before December 31 of next year, and is playing his fourth season in the CHL, matching both criteria and making him eligible to play in the AHL with the Laval Rocket in 2018-19. The other option would be an over-age season in the WHL.
There are plenty of factors that go into a decision concerning the future of the defenceman. He will get a contract from the Habs. There's no doubt about it. But the organization has another year to make a move as his rights only expire in June of 2019.
The signing will depend on where they see a fit. Right now, the current state of the farm team will have Montreal explore all their options. With the call-ups and the injuries, there are plenty of spots to fill in the Laval lineup, however, that might change next season as the depth chart of the 2018 Habs remains quite a mystery.
Ultimately, the most important thing to consider is the development of the prospect and where his growth will be best served. Is it by playing harder minutes, but less of them, in the AHL, or being relied upon every night against weaker competition in the WHL?
The fact that Fleury has grown a lot as a player likely means that he could already be a great help to the Rocket as they try to surge from their spot among the bottom teams in the AHL for next year.
The offensive side to his game and his sometimes adventurous nature makes him an exciting player, but, first and foremost, he became a solid defensive presence for the Regina Pats this season, and the label of two-way defenceman now fits him perfectly.
His maturity is evident, as seen in this sequence from last Sunday.
Below the goal line, Fleury (#4) imposes himself physically, and, with a good use of his stick, separates the Oil Kings player from the puck. He then immediately supports the attack as the third man, but as soon as possession is lost at the offensive blue line, he is retreating to defend his own against the opposing rush.
He breaks the play up himself at the entrance of the defensive zone, and as his team is going to be second onto the loose puck, he looks for players around him who represent passing options, setting himself to block a feed that was heading to the front of the net.
In that game, he also scored a goal and added an assist.
Fleury looks to be finding a balance between his defensive role with the Pats and his involvement in the offence. He has recorded 12 points in his last 11 games and seems to be ending the season with a hot streak fueled by his strong shot.
He could jump up in the play more to release from closer to the net — and this is something he will likely have to do to create goals for himself against better goalies — but the fact that he can score from a distance bodes well for him at the pro level.
Plus, he has shown some quarterback skills this season, using subtle misdirections that enabled east-west passes, which earned him an assist on Tuesday.
Fleury also always had it in him to create offence off the rush as a pass option, or carrying the puck up himself to the other end. It was one of his prominent qualities in his draft year and it has slowly resurfaced with the Pats, especially against more vulnerable teams.
But contrary to last season, the more complete game of the Habs prospect means he has a lot more to offer to a team looking to improve at both ends of the ice. Which is definitely the case of the Rocket.
With the signings of Michael Pezzetta and William Bitten, and the possible addition of Jake Evans, Cale Fleury could join a new movement for the AHL farm team: an influx of youth and enthusiasm that might have lacked for a Laval team that opted to add more veteran players at the beginning of it inaugural season, and who lost key players to the Habs as injuries mounted at the top level.
With some adjustments to his play, Bitten should bolster their offence, his speed carrying the team in transitions and his playmaking ability added to his never-quit attitude helping create more scoring chances in high-danger areas. That final benefit is one that the big-bodied Pezzetta will help out in as well. And Evans, who has been nominated for Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten conference, will hopefully add his own touch down the middle for the team.
The Habs season is almost done circling the drain, but the prospect of adding multiple drafted talents to the team's depth chart for next year brings hope for the future.
Scott Walford #7, LD, Victoria Royals
After not registering a single goal in 63 games this season on 103 shots, Walford found the back of the net this week not once, but twice.
His first one was worth the wait as it was a good display of skill and vision from the third-rounder. He pinched up to intercept a pass and made a hard feed to Tyler Soy, who gave it back to him as Walford was skating to the open space in front of the net. The Royals’ #7 then moved around the Cougars' goalie and slid the puck into an open net.
His second goal was a quick-but-hard screened wrist shot from the point in the following game.
Josh Brook #2, RD, Moose Jaw Warriors
Brook is starting to put up some points again, up to 30 in 39 games, and scored his third goal of the season on Saturday. He joined the rush, received a pass from Tate Popple and slipped the puck five-hole on the Saskatoon Blades' goalie.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL weekly performance
|Josh Brook||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||3||1||2||3|
CHL season to date
|Josh Brook||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||39||3||27||30|