Cale Fleury looked really solid in his Memorial Cup debut with the Regina Pats a month after they were eliminated in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. Hosting the tournament offered them a second life, as is customary.
Fleury stood out with his shutdown skills with the Pats, especially on the play that ended up being the winning goal for the home team. He stopped cold the zone incursion of a Hamilton Bulldogs player and easily stripped him of the puck, to then calmly assess the situation and send a tape-to-tape pass up the ice. This was certainly a sight of delight for Montreal Canadiens fans, and probably those in the organization itself.
Cale Fleury makes a great defensive play and springs his team's offence. The Pats score the game-winning goal a few seconds later.— David St-Louis (@RinksideView) May 19, 2018
First win of the tournament for the Pats. pic.twitter.com/vywmMJjG2x
It was the kind of play that gets the attention of the right people and gets them thinking.
Playing in junior and playing in the pros are two completely different beasts. Dominance at the lower level does not necessarily guarantee a successful transition to the other. We’ve seen countless defenders excel in junior only to fizzle out once they got to the AHL. Morgan Ellis and Jarred Tinordi are the two former Canadiens prospects who immediately come to mind.
So how do you safeguard a prospect to make sure he gets the best possible development opportunities to succeed at the pro level? Fleury can certainly play his over-age season in the WHL next season, but given the calmness and dominance of his defensive play already, I’m not sure how much he has left to learn at this level. He could potentially focus on his offensive game in junior, but I’m not certain this would be the best decision for him.
Another, perhaps more interesting, option would be to exploit the loophole of the ‘late birthday’, which works on the principal that the NHL and AHL have different guidelines for determining a player’s playing age for the season. For the NHL, it’s September 15 of the upcoming season. That would make Cale Fleury a 19-year-old in the eyes of the NHL. For the AHL the date is December 31, and with Fleury’s birthday falling on November 19, he is 20 years old in the eyes of the AHL, and eligible to play in the league.
Why does this matter, you may ask? Well a 19-year-old player with an NHL entry-level contract not playing in the NHL can slide his contract by a year. The net result would be that if Fleury were to play in the AHL next season it would not burn a year off of his three-year entry-level contract, extending his professional development to four seasons on a single contract. And that is an opportunity for the Canadiens.
Defencemen take longer to develop as the saying goes, but with Fleury’s maturity already on display, he could be ready for a quick taste of the NHL in two years, and perhaps ready to take a spot in three years. That still gives the Canadiens two complete seasons of a defencemen on a cheap contract after two seasons of development in the AHL, and this is definitely a route worth exploring should Fleury excel under the tutelage of Joël Bouchard.
It’s not a unique situation, as the Canadiens have taken this approach with Brett Lernout and Nikita Scherbak. Both are entering their fourth professional seasons, but playing out the third year of their entry level contracts. In both of those cases it’s for the best as there appears to be some development work left for them.
The Canadiens will certainly continue to watch Fleury during the Memorial Cup, and he will have a spot at Canadiens Development Camp in July. By the Rookie Tournament in September, Fleury should have already secured his first NHL contract. The Canadiens will still have the option of sending him down to junior after he signs, and the contract will still slide, but the AHL loophole might be too good of an opportunity for the Canadiens to resist.