Victor Mete took a visit to Claude Julien’s office at the end of a Canadiens practice. That’s where and when he heard the news.
It was much different from the one he got in October of 2017, where he was told he’d be with the team past the nine-game threshold and ride shotgun with All-Star defenseman Shea Weber. But the 20-year old seemingly took Julien’s orders, an assignment to the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket, in stride.
“I want to play,” Mete said. “[The Canadiens] know how much I want to play and how much I can benefit from this. I’m excited and not too mad about it at all really. I know it’s a good opportunity for me to improve my game.”
This time last year, the debate was whether or not Mete should rejoin the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League following his stint with Team Canada’s World Junior Championship team. Ultimately, he stayed in Montreal until a hand injury ended his season in March.
Now, Mete has been sent down to the AHL for more grooming. Mete says Julien told him his offensive game was “more than fine.” However, he needs work in the defensive zone. Ironically, him being sent down came shortly after his former partner’s return from offseason knee surgery.
“We have a big jam there [on defence],” Mete said. “We’d have nine guys once [Juulsen] gets back. Or eight now. I expected it. I wasn’t playing much.”
“I’m excited,” said Rocket defenceman Brett Lernout. “He’s a skilled defenceman, he can skate like the wind. He can make plays and he makes a good first pass out of the zone.”
Some may see it as a demotion, and they may not be completely wrong. It’s easy to see going from playing on a NHL roster to an AHL one as such, just ask the recently assigned Karl Alzner. Unlike his teammate, Mete isn’t trying to rediscover his game and skills. It’s about getting playing time and taking the next step in his evolution as a hockey player. You could even make the argument that Mete playing in a lower league should’ve happened in his rookie season, but the Habs didn’t have much due to their depth on defence and the AHL not an option due to his age. But similarly to his last few games last season, Mete hasn’t been trusted with many minutes on the ice.
Mete has played 20 minutes or more in a game just once this year, the season opening loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 23 games played, he’s averaged slightly over 15 minutes of ice-time per game. It’s the lowest of any defenceman on the team and nearly two full minutes behind the second least-used defenceman Xavier Ouellet. Mete, who was an offensive defenceman in junior, has just four assists this season in the NHL.
Rocket head coach Joel Bouchard, who worked with Team Canada’s World Junior team when Mete was on the team in 2018 and invited to camp in 2017, is looking to give him every opportunity to succeed. On top of being given power play minutes, Mete was on the top defensive pairing with Brett Lernout in his AHL debut, a 3-2 overtime loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He then scored his first pro goal in a 5-4 loss to the Utica Comets one night later.
“We want to work on certain aspects of his game with him,” Bouchard said. “To give him the opportunity to develop his game at 200 feet and at other facets. He’s doing quite well in the NHL, but it’s about making him a more complete defenceman.”
The American Hockey League, unlike the Ontario Hockey League would have last year, allows him to get quality minutes against professional players. And in his first two AHL contests, he hasn’t looked out of place. While some may expect him to light up the scoresheet in every game he plays, it’s quite alright if he doesn’t.
Mete could start by uplifting the Rocket’s power play, last in the AHL at 12%. If Mete plays well, a return to the Canadiens is likely if not inevitable. And perhaps he could reunite with Shea Weber as his partner. For Mete, that would make for some good news from his temporary detour.