Montreal is still very much in the playoff hunt right now. They could also see a mountain of new prospects arriving at the pro level as their teams are eliminated from post-season play in the CHL and NCAA. However, there are also some talented players in the system currently playing for the Laval Rocket of the AHL, most notably Cale Fleury on defence and Jake Evans at centre.
Earlier this year I touched on possibly giving Fleury’s defensive partner, Xavier Ouellet, a second crack at the NHL, and for good reason.
Together the duo leads a defensive group that has allowed the fewest shots against in the entire AHL; no small feat given how much turnover the roster has had since opening night. They lost their top defender in Brett Kulak to an early NHL call-up, Gustav Olofsson played a game and a half before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Victor Mete played just seven games before heading back to Montreal, and Noah Juulsen was shut down due to a serious facial injury. Michal Moravcik saw his contract terminated, Simon Despres was here for just five games, David Schlemko was traded, and Ryan Sproul played just 11 games on a PTO deal.
In short, the Rocket have seen a revolving door on defence, and have only recently begun to find their balance in that regard. A consistent starting six featuring Ouellet and Fleury as its premier pair has begun to create better results at both ends of the ice, especially on the man advantage in recent weeks. Ouellet is a veteran, and expected to be a leader on the ice (as the C he wears indicates) and on the scoresheet, which he is doing with aplomb this season. Fleury, however, has shown tremendous poise for Joël Bouchard and the Rocket, playing up and down the lineup before settling in as a top-pairing defender for the second half of this season.
So, to steal a running joke from the Toronto fanbase: How does this affect the Montreal Canadiens?
In short, it is showing them that they have someone who could very easily be challenging for an NHL role next season, and could realistically earn his first taste right now — with a caveat.
Claude Julien appears to be happy with how his defence is set up right now as Montreal furiously attempts to keep pace with the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes in the wild-card chase. However, if the team should fall too far out, sustain an injury, or struggle to find quality performances down the home stretch, there’s a perfect opportunity to give Fleury some NHL experience.
If Bouchard is trusting the rookie defender to play heavy minutes in the AHL, there isn’t really a reason why he couldn’t play in a small NHL role. The Canadiens know at this point what they have in players like Jordie Benn, Christian Folin, and Mikey Reilly. If they drop out of the playoff picture fully it should be time to see what they have for the future.
Fleury has eight goals and 12 assists this year in 49 games played. Not groundbreaking, but more than respectable for a 20-year-old rookie in the AHL. He’s getting his points in various ways, using his heavy shot or with great patience to find shooting lanes and wiring wrist shots by opposing goalies. He uses his mobility well to get around the offensive zone, and that is something that could easily benefit him at the highest level.
Cale Fleury grabs a pass out of mid-air, then roofs a backhander to tie the game in Laval! pic.twitter.com/i4uau03Y7l— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 21, 2019
In his own end, Fleury is composed with the puck, making the right choices while maintaining his positioning on the ice. He has a nasty physical side, playing the body well yet rarely taking himself out of the play. If he does, his skating allows him to jump right back in quickly.
Cale Fleury sends Jonathan Ang into next week with a massive hit behind the net. pic.twitter.com/bLhTLrg3Sf— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 20, 2018
It’s a unique time for Montreal. They’re teetering between making the post-season and having a handful of tickets for the draft lottery. A few more losses puts their season in the books, and should that happen Fleury will be at the top of the list for a trial run. The Canadiens are retooling on the fly, and part of that has to include seeing what this promising wave of prospects can do right now. If they are destined for the lottery, there is little risk involved. If they choose to call him up and he helps get the team into the post-season, even better.