The Habs bolster their defensive depth with an offensively inclined left-handed blue-liner.
The Montreal Canadiens went into the 2018-19 season expected to finish near the bottom. They’d traded away two of the top goal-scorers on the team and done little to address the defence. But with neither a long-term injury to Shea Weber nor a surprisingly poor start from Carey Price able to knock them to the canvas, it was quickly apparent that the team was going to battle for a playoff spot.
In the end, that fight came up just short of a post-season berth, two points away from the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, though with a higher total than three of the playoff clubs in the West.
Being the best of the rest gave Montreal the lowest odds of winning a top-three pick, and they left the draft lottery in their designated 15th spot, destined to watch the other non-playoff teams head to the podium ahead of them.
Fourteen players will be gone off the board when the Habs’ brass takes the stage in Vancouver. In the annual Mock Draft, the SB Nation NHL sites picture how that process will unfold. These are the picks that had been made when we were called upon for our selection:
While a few of us have been hoping that Podkolzin’s contract situation (he has two more years to play in the KHL) will have him fall to 15th at the actual draft, that wasn’t the case in this event.
However, even though Montreal sits in the proverbial “no man’s land” as the non-playoff team farthest from the first overall selection, there were still plenty of solid prospects projected to go in the range of the Canadiens’ slot for us to consider.
Ryan Suzuki was one option. Despite already having his brother in the prospect pool, his skill set was thought to be similar to that of other players and prospects in the system. Montreal has plenty of forwards to distribute the puck but few to finish the play off.
Arthur Kaliyev and Raphaël Lavoie were perhaps the best goal-scorers still on offer at 15th, however several of us have concerns about how prolific their offence will be in the NHL. They’re able to rack up points at the Junior level, but a few flaws could limit their output in the professional ranks.
Looking at some of the defencemen available, Moritz Seider is one prospect who really stands out as a potential NHL blue-liner. He has an intriguing set of abilities that will pique the interest of many scouting staffs leading up to the draft.
He would surely be an excellent selection for Montreal, but he is a right-handed defenceman, and that is the stronger of the two sides — by a significant margin — in the Canadiens’ system. Weber is locked into a top-four spot for several years, Jeff Petry will closely match him for at least two more, and Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury, and Josh Brook all have realistic shots at becoming regular NHL players.
The left side of the defence is the weakest position in the organization, and there are two left-shot players in this part of the draft who could help stabilize it.
While he does play with a left-handed stick, Ville Heinola lines up on the right side in all competition. It would surely be possible to develop him to play on the left side, but he seems comfortable in his current role.
The one whom we at EOTP ultimately decided on is Thomas Harley, a 6’3”, 192-pound defenceman born less than a month before the cutoff date for the 2019 NHL Draft. He had a good offensive year on what was a middle-of-the-pack Mississauga Steelheads squad, leading all team defencemen, with just two forwards above him. Swept in the opening round of the OHL post-season, Harley co-led the team with four points.
Getting a chance to play on Team Canada at the World Under-18 Championship, he once again posted the top points total of all blue-liners, ranking behind a bevy of forwards also projected to be taken in the opening round of the draft.
Harley is a very good skater who is able to keep up or even catch opposing forwards on the rush. That’s proven to be an important skill in the OHL because he can get out of position on that side of the puck.
“My defensive consistency is all over the place, that is something I need to work on,” he admitted at the Scouting Combine. That could be seen as a concern, but the fact he acknowledges it as a weakness, and seems determined to improve it, are good signs.
With the puck in his control, his best attributes are put on display. He uses that speed to carry the puck out of danger, building up speed as he makes the turn out of his defensive zone. Head up, he’s aware of the lanes open to him and the teammates available for passes.
Even inside the opposing team’s blue line, his feet don’t stop moving. He moves laterally along the blue line or jumps up into the zone to create better offensive plays. These abilities all allow him to be a good power-play performer, when even more lanes are left open by a four-man defensive alignment.
Thomas Harley wears #48 with the Mississauga Steelheads
Thomas Harley - Highlights - YouTube
His shooting motion is a bit wooden, and is another part of his game he identifies as needing work. Still 17, he will have plenty of time to work on his release as well as his defensive play, both of which can be greatly improved with training.
Offensive instinct is one of the elements in short supply in the Canadiens’ current pool of defencemen, especially on the left side. With an organizational structure largely based on strong defensive play, from Price, through Weber, to a large number of two-way forwards, the Canadiens can add a blue-liner who is more inclined to the offensive side to complement prospects like Juulsen, Fleury, and Alexander Romanov.
We believe Thomas Harley addresses an organizational need while also being one of the better players available, and for that reason he is our selection at 15th overall.
We will have an in-depth profile on Harley in the near future. In the meantime, check out the 50-plus prospects we’ve written about so far in our 2019 NHL Draft Hub.
The history of Eyes On The Prize’s SB Nation NHL Mock Draft selections
Coming in as an unknown with no North American experience, Sklenicka became trusted.
From the time he was signed, David Sklenicka and his teammate and countrymate Martin Moravcik were invariably linked. They signed together, they had played together with their Czech team and at the World Championships, and they both took part in the team’s development and rookie camps which is rare for free agent signings with professional experience.
At the beginning, they were talked about together almost all of the time, but when they took to the ice at the camps, it was Sklenicka that caught my eye. He was a good skater, he was able to move the puck and in scrimmages, those things stick out.
By the end of the season, it was Sklenicka, the younger and smaller of the two Czechs who ended up being trusted by Joël Bouchard while Moravcik had his contract bought out after a short stint in the ECHL.
Sklenicka ended the season playing 68 games, scoring three goals and adding six assists. His 68 games was third on the team among defenders behind only Brett Lernout and Maxim Lamarche, and considering the depth that the Rocket had, especially down the stretch, it says a lot that the Czech was a trusted member of that rotation.
It did take him some time to establish a spot, but he became comfortable and helped the team at both ends of the ice.
Sklenicka was one of the better Rocket defenders in terms of goals against, and while he left a little to be desired in terms of goals when he was on the ice, that part of his game should come around. He took 81 shots on the season, which is something he used more as the season went on. He didn’t drive offence as much as Lamarche, but that’s the difference between an AHL veteran, and a player adjusting to the North American game.
His shot is able to be tipped, and it was able to beat goaltenders. You can see the makings of a formidable offensive game. It didn’t show up in the statistics, but we should see him more aggressive in his second season.
He also got into some altercations as the season went on. This hit in particular was after Zach Stortini hit him with a questionable hit earlier in the game. Don’t focus on what happens after the hit as the player who came in obviously wanted to fight and Sklenicka wanted nothing to do with it, which is normal after a hit he shouldn’t have had to answer for.
There’s a lot to like about Sklenicka’s game and his emergence may be one of the reasons the team decided to not sign Scott Walford and Jarret Tyszka before June 1. Getting young players with professional experience like Sklenicka (and Otto Leskinen, who was signed this year) is an alternative method to build depth without needing to lock players up to three year contracts. These players are older and more developed as well.
It will once again be a very deep defence corps in Laval, and Sklenicka deserves a long look. With the addition of Josh Brook for a full season, the return of Xavier Ouellet, among others, plus Leskinen making his debut, there isn’t a lot of playing time to go around.
I don’t know if Sklenicka has an NHL future, but he only turns 23 in September and has time to develop his skill even more. He will definitely get a longer look at training camp, and it will be interesting to see what his role will be at the start of the Rocket season.
One thing is for sure: if his progression from this season continues into next year when he’ll surely be more comfortable, the Canadiens may have themselves a nice find.
The netminder could become a mainstay on a NHL team within a few years.
Mads Søgaard is a Danish goaltender who recently joined the WHL. He was a first-round pick in the CHL Import Draft and made the most of his first year in the CHL circuit. Suffice to say that his first year was quite the coming out party for the young netminder. He was able to establish himself as a solid option between the pipes for the Medicine Hat Tigers.
There is one main reason why Søgaard is turning heads: he is a huge man. He stands 6’7” as an 18-year-old. As has been mentioned in our other draft reviews, with this new era of goaltenders, when you add great athleticism and a strong technical foundation to a big frame, you get quite the goaltending prospect.
Birthplace: Aalborg, Denmark Date of birth: December 13, 2000 Catches: Left Position: Goalie Height: 6’7” Weight: 196 lbs. Team: Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Despite being an enormous human, he’s still agile enough to move around his crease well and has a strong technical base.
In 37 games this year with the Medicine Hat Tigers, Søgaard compiled a 2.64 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. With his height, he’s able to keep track of the play just by looking over those in front of him, though he still understands where he has to be to make the stop.
Looking at the video below, you can see how his size gives him a clear advantage. He’s able to seal much of the bottom half of the net when he goes into the butterfly, as well as sealing up really well his posts. His reverse-VH stance (sealing up the posts with his chest and pads) is some of the best I’ve seen. He can easily cover most of the post, cutting angles for the shooter. This pushes the opponent to either shoot directly into his chest or attempt a pass (23 seconds into the video).
Mads Søgaard vs Edmonton | Nov 10 2018 - YouTube
His butterfly stance is really strong (seen here). He’s able to seal much of the ice and still move to keep up with the shooter. He’s often square to the shooter, which leaves very little to aim for.
His lateral strides are powerful to always keep him with the play developing in front of him. He knows when to use his strong butterfly form to make impressive saves look casual.
Mads Søgaard vs Red Deer | Jan 25 2019 - YouTube
It’s impressive how technically sounds Søgaard is. He could improve his rebound control to become and even better wall in net. He shows his great stance and good form of being square to the shooter (and his strong VH stance). But being able to smother the puck or redirect the puck in the corners would really add another layer of skill to his already strong toolkit.
The video above really captures the essence of this netminder. Due to his size, shooters have to try and make him move to get a shot at the net. But his speed and reaction time are still very good. When you have a moving target at 6’7’’ and almost 200 pounds, you never really have much space. The player shot the puck just past him, still hitting the post, and Søgaard covered the puck.
There are a few negatives to his overall skills. His puck-handling abilities are mediocre to average at best. He doesn’t look all that comfortable handling the puck, being a bit hesitant to move it. His blocker side tends to be a bit of a weakness. The few goals I’ve seen scored on him usually came on that side. He could work on keeping his blocker up and active.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Future Considerations: #59 Hockey Prospect: #34 McKeen’s: #65 NHL Central Scouting: #2 (NA Goalies)
All in all, as is often the case with Junior goaltenders, he is still fairly raw. He has a lot of great tools, very strong technical skills, and good overall athleticism. He’s a netminder made in the new mould for the NHL. Yet, he’s still a prospect who could benefit from a few years of development. Giving him time to fill out his frame would help him add a little edge to his speed and athleticism.
Poehling, Suzuki, Teasdale, Romanov and others lead a bright pool of prospects, Ouellet talks about his new contract, Taylor Hall is in no hurry to sign, Chara's Game 4 injury, and more in today's links.
A season of extremes ended with Drouin in the middle.
They say that the difference between good and great is consistency, and, well, that statement may apply to Jonathan Drouin more than any player on the Montreal Canadiens.
Drouin actually finished third in team scoring and led the team in power-play points over the season, but down the stretch he was the subject of anger and frustration — and deservedly so. In the last 26 games, he had one goal and six assists for seven points. But perhaps more damaging than the pure point totals is that those seven points came in three games, meaning he was held pointless in 23 of his last 26 games.
Yet through his hot and cold streaks, Drouin remained a very similar player. The only difference between “good” Drouin and “bad” Drouin was how many pucks were going in the net — at both ends. What was seen as effective play through the first 55 games of the season turned into lazy play and frustrating inconsistency.
The last 26 games of the season actually saw Drouin increase his shot share when on the ice, from 22nd of 26 Canadiens players in the first 55 games to eighth of 25 players over his final 26. The rest of his numbers in terms of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances were remarkably similar. His expected goals share, which looks at where shots from both teams are being taken and the likelihood of them going in, was exactly the same through both stretches.
The biggest differences are what we tend to notice most: actual goals. It went from the Canadiens scoring 55% of the goals while he was on the ice to just 37.5%, and a lot of that simply came down to luck. He had good fortune through the first 55 games, but for the final 26 games his luck didn’t simply regress to the mean, it became incredibly bad luck.
In games one to 55, he was eighth in PDO, which adds the team’s shooting percentage with a player on the ice to the team’s save percentage in those minutes, with a total of 1.019 (average is expected to be 1.000). Through the worst stretch of his season, starting February 9, his PDO was 0.936. That was fourth-worst on the team, and the only players worse than him played a handful of games: Michael Chaput (one game), Matthew Peca (six games) and Nicolas Deslauriers (seven games) had just 14 games combined compared to Drouin’s 26.
This isn’t to say that Drouin shouldn’t be better, or that he shouldn’t be called out for bad stretches. It’s simply to show that he may not have been as good as he showed in the first part of the season, and he isn’t nearly as bad as he was through the final stretch of the season.
He had 16 power-play points, which were five more than the next higher power-play scorer. The power play wasn’t very good (the understatement of the century), but when it does improve — and it will improve — Drouin will be a major part of its success. His biggest skills are evident on the man advantage when he can have extra time and space with the puck. That being said, the power play’s struggles also fell on him as he was the one to handle the puck most often.
An improved power play will give Drouin a nicer number in the statistics section. You’d be hard-pressed as it is to find a player who finished third on his team in scoring who was more scrutinized.
Drouin can be better. He can be more consistent. He can be more engaged on a night-to-night basis. He can start to help the team in ways that don’t show up in the scoresheet. All of those things are true. And so is the fact that Drouin is a top-six player in the NHL.
But perception matters, and points aren’t everything. There won’t be anyone saying that Drouin is better than Brendan Gallagher even though Drouin had more points. That determination is based on more than just offence.
After the 2017-18 season, we were left wondering whether Drouin was a centre or a winger and what kind of player he was. Going into the 2019-20 season, we now know what kind of player Drouin is. We also know what he needs to do better.
The winger outclassed his peers this year, but concerns about his skating were made apparent in his KHL time.
Prospects who play their draft season in a professional league, or even partly in a men’s league, tend to draw a lot of interest from scouts. Production doesn’t matter as much as the on-ice minutes they get at a high level, proving that they have the trust of the coaching staff due to their special attributes, and that they can hang with players much older and physically mature.
Pavel Dorofoyev only recorded two points in 23 games for the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk. His production was certainly affected by ice time and the difficulty of the league he was playing in; the KHL is widely considered the second-best hockey league in the world. But even if he wasn’t an impact player for the club, just the fact that he got a long stint with the team is a good sign that he could grow into such a role.
Birthplace: Nizhny Tagil, RUS Date of birth: October 26, 2000 Shoots: Left Position: Wing Height: 6’0” Weight: 163 lbs. Team: Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
What’s also interesting with Dorofoyev is that his overall production isn’t as much of a question as it is for other prospects who spend the entire year playing up a level. Against his own age group, Dorofoyev dominated. He scored 31 points in 19 games for Stalnye Lisy in the MHL and generally showed his offensive impact.
He is primarily a scorer; of those 31 points, 17 were goals. The winger has quick hands in the slot and knows where to position himself to get the best scoring chances. Once he gets the puck inside the defensive box, he can thread it around the stick of defenders and beat a repositioning goalie. His stickhandling isn’t as smooth as some of the best handlers in the draft, but he consistently gets the first touch on the puck as he manipulates it in traffic, keeping it away from the opposition.
Drorofeyev also shows a powerful wrister off the rush and the ability to one-time pucks from cross-crease passes, and his handling abilities can also make him a dangerous playmaker. He locates his surrounding options quickly and can draw defenders to him, beat them, and set up teammates for scoring chances.
Pavel Dorofoyev - Goal scoring - YouTube
The first clip in the video below is one of the most impressive sequences from the prospect this season. He picks up the puck on the boards, turns to face a first defender, dangles through him and attacks the slot from below the goal line, going around a second defender to feed a teammate. The second sequence is also interesting, seeing him change the angle of his pass, use a quick backhand to bypass the stick of a defender, and reach a teammate in front of the net.
Pavel Dorofoyev - Playmaking - YouTube
The main concern with Dorofoyev is one related to his pace of play. He isn’t a great skater, neither speedy nor quick in his movements, but his form should allow him to improve his mobility as he gains strength. It isn’t so much mobility that is the true issue, but more the fact that he generally prefers slowing the game down than attacking with the speed he does have.
Take a look at this game sequence below:
Pavel Dorofeyev - Contrast speed and pace - YouTube
Dorofeyev, number 27 in white and gold, is backchecking through the neutral zone. He hustles and catches up to his man and helps break up the opposing play in his end. But as soon as the puck is on his stick, he stops pushing the pace. He could hit teammates on the breakout in position to carry the puck in the offensive zone, which would allow him to trail them and come in as a late shooting option, playing into his skill set, or accelerate to rush with numbers up the ice to catch the defence as they are still repositioning. But he simply drifts up.
Despite attacking four defenders without much speed, Dorofeyev still gains the offensive zone quite easily. The defenders part to allow access to their end even if this play could have been broken at the blue line. The choice there is reinforced by the favourable outcome, and it can lead to the formation of bad habits.
The KHL is a much better defensive league. The ice is larger, but plays have to be executed with high pace if a team wants to get inside dangerous areas of the ice before the opposition can stop them. Dorofeyev will have to learn to use his skill in combination with quicker decision-making, something he has definitely shown himself capable of, if he wants to have an impact at higher levels.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Dobber Prospects: #16 Elite Prospects: #15 Future Considerations: #25 Hockey Prospect: #20 McKeen’s: #31 McKenzie/TSN: #65 NHL Central Scouting: #12 (EU skaters) Pronman/The Athletic: #36
The winger’s game is in need of more refinement than that of other prospects who are in his projected range. That, coupled with his age — Dorofeyev is one of the older player in the class — might end up keeping him outside of the first round in the end. If a team loves his goal-scoring and playmaking touch enough, and projects that he will add consistency and details that would make his game NHL transferable, it’s possible to see him picked fairly high on the first day of the draft.
He doesn’t have the intensity of a Vasili Podkolzin, his Russian counterpart, but there is arguably a similar skill level there. The reward for betting on Dorofeyev could be high.
The 30 goal winger is likely on the move, can Montreal steal him from Pittsburgh at his lowest value?
One of the biggest names on the trade market right now is that of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel, with the sniper likely a victim of salary-cap issues this off-season.
Kessel is coming off another highly productive season, scoring at a point-per-game pace with 27 goals and 55 assists in a full 82 games played. That last part is key as well; Kessel has not missed a game of NHL action since the 2009-10 season, which is incredible given the physical nature of the modern NHL. He is a premier goal-scorer in the game, with six seasons of 30-plus goals, and a career-low total in a full season of 19 goals in his second year with the Boston Bruins.
While possessing a laser of a wrist shot, Kessel continues to put up great numbers as a setup man as well, posting three straight seasons of 45-plus assists. While he is going to be 32 by the start of the next season, he does not appear to be slowing down on the offensive side of the puck.
With the Penguins cap situation becoming a major concern for Jim Rutherford this off-season, Kessel has become the biggest name in trade rumors. He reportedly vetoed a trade to Minnesota based on the Wild’s likely status as a “non-contender.” The deal would have seen Jason Zucker heading back the other way as the focal points of the deal.
Kessel has an eight-team trade list as part of his no-trade clause in his contract, and that may not have the Montreal Canadiens on it. If he were to waive that claude and okay a deal to move to Montreal, he is currently being paid $6,800,000 by the Penguins, with the Toronto Maple Leafs still retaining $1,200,000 of his salary as well, and will be for the next three seasons.
Kessel is not being looked to for his defensive abilities. He would be coming to Montreal to pile up goals and points. This past season in Pittsburgh, Kessel started 76.4% of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone, and was still among the bottom six forwards in terms of Corsi against per 60 minutes (CA/60), holding a Corsi-for percentage of 46.8%. As a whole, the Penguins side struggled for much of the year, and it isn’t just Kessel who should be taking blame for defensive woes.
He clearly has his flaws on the defensive side of the puck, but those can’t be the deal-breaker for a team looking to address offensive issues. He needs to play with players who can make up for his deficiencies, and Montreal is a team with several players who can help mitigate the impact of Kessel’s lack of defensive acumen.
Once the other four skaters on the ice have helped get into the offensive zone, all Kessel does is score goals or create high-danger chances. Despite being a right wing, and almost unfairly maligned as a soft player, he makes his money in the most dangerous areas of the ice.
Sean Tierney/Charting Hockey
Living mostly in the home-plate area, Kessel is an immediate goal-scoring upgrade to any line in Montreal. He is going to score goals if you give him the puck in the slot, and Montreal has the playmakers to make that a reality.
What exactly would Kessel cost in a trade? A player capable of regular 25- to 30-goal, seasons does not come cheap in almost any circumstance, but with the Penguins forced to make a deal with little leverage, there is every chance to snag him on a better deal than previously believed. In the vetoed trade to Minnesota, Zucker and Victor Rask were headed the other way. But not for just Kessel, Jack Johnson’s deal, which Pittsburgh is desperately trying to shed, was also involved.
Let me make this unequivocally clear: any deal that forces Montreal to take on Johnson and his contract — four more years for $3.25 million — should be walked away from instantly. Even with Montreal’s need for a left-side defender they should be ignoring any and all paths that lead to Johnson. Kessel brings value to spare, but it is not nearly enough to also take on a massive anchor.
While Montreal might not want to part with their current forwards to match a Zucker-like return, they do have an abundance of prospects and picks to facilitate a trade. Assuming that Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, and Alexander Romanov are off the table, there is still a mountain of other prospects to choose from, depending on what the Penguins greatest need is.
The line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher will likely remain untouched, but both Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi could use a goal-scoring upgrade on their wings. For Domi, Kessel would be a boon for the newly minted centre, posting a career-high 44 assists last year, adding a star sniper might bolster that number further, but defence could be a serious issue that duo.
Even as an 18-year-old in the NHL, Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed poise at both ends of the ice and vision that extended beyond his linemates’ skills more often than not. Joel Armia was an outstanding player for Montreal, but sliding him down the lineup to add Kessel to Kotkaniemi’s wing seems like the sort of move to boost the offence and propel Montreal forward into a playoff spot. Kotkaniemi also showed good defensive chops in his rookie year, so that matchup may make more sense at five-on-five.
Montreal’s right-wing depth at the NHL level currently consists of Gallagher (33 goals), Andrew Shaw (19), Paul Byron (15) and Armia (13), which is not an easy group to crack, but Kessel would immediately increase the offensive production with ease by replacing any one of those final three.
If you’re acquiring a player of Kessel’s calibre, you shift one of them to another spot in the lineup to make room, or add one to the package heading the Penguins’ way. No matter which one departs, adding Kessel means more production overall to the roster.
It is a very intriguing off-season ahead of the Canadiens, and with the potential to add a player of Phil Kessel’s level, they could very well surpass what was a good season this past year.
It won’t necessarily be cheap, but you have to pay to make drastic changes to get closer to the Stanley Cup. Acquiring Kessel could be just the thing Montreal needs to make that push for the NHL’s ultimate prize.
With only a few hours to go, here is an updated list of the players who must be signed by their respective clubs to an Entry Level contract no later than 5:00pm ET today, otherwise the drafting club will lose their signing rights to these players.https://t.co/nXfmDT1fO4pic.twitter.com/k7ZfQ6HDoa
Walford was the second-highest selection (68th overall) on the list of those left unsigned, behind Pittsburgh Penguins second-round pick Zachary Lauzon (51st). He saw a small increase in his production after his draft season, and jumped from 32 to 47 points in 2018-19, but his projection was always as a defensive option at the professional level.
Tyszka has a more dynamic game, showing off his puck-carrying skills at development camp a year ago, but a critical season was derailed by injuries, limiting him to just 41 games in 2018-19. Posting just 30 points on the year, the Canadiens decided to pass on locking him into one of their 50 available NHL contract spots.
Despite the two departures, the 2017 draft can still be viewed as a successful one. The other two defencemen selected — Cale Fleury and Josh Brook — both have their ELCs in hand and some experience in the AHL from last year. They are two of the more promising prospects in the system, with strong chances of getting some NHL looks in the near future. The draft also yielded Joni Ikonen, potential NHL starting goaltender Cayden Primeau, and a player who will challenge for a spot in the Habs’ centre depth next season, Ryan Poehling.
It didn’t take long for the first-year defender to establish himself as one of the Rocket’s best players this season.
Cale Fleury was an intriguing prospect heading into last summer within the Montreal Canadiens organization. He was not yet 20 years old but was eligible to play in the AHL since he would turn 20 before the new year and had completed four seasons of Junior hockey. It was a matter of having him turn pro or play an over-age season in the WHL. After a strong showing in the rookie camp and tournament, the team offered him his entry level contract, and he joined the Laval Rocket just in time for the start of the season.
With Shea Weber out injured and the right side of Montreal’s defence lacking some firepower, there was every chance in the world for Fleury to step up and possibly steal a role on the NHL roster as well. He ended up staying in the AHL all year, and that was likely the best move for the rookie defender. The Canadiens are taking their time handling player development, and in Fleury it may be paying off.
His 23 points (9G, 14A) are not a massive amount of production for the blue-liner, but his rookie season far and away surpassed all expectations the club might have had on him.
Like many rookies on Joël Bouchard’s roster, Fleury was not thrown into the deep end, instead starting on the third pairing and slowly moving up the lineup as needed. It didn’t take long for him to force his coach’s hand, ending up as a top-three defender for much of the season in Laval.
He quickly formed a dynamic pairing with Xavier Ouellet, and the duo not only reinvigorated a stale offence but helped develop Fleury into a much more well-rounded player.
Ouellet was moved at the end of the season to help Josh Brook adjust on another pairing, and Fleury was then added to a pairing with Karl Alzner. That decision was make to help make things a bit easier on the NHL veteran, showing the level of trust Fleury had earned from his coaches.
First and foremost, he is an offensive-minded player on the blue line. He is always looking to make plays happen and never passes up a chance to direct pucks at opposing goaltenders. However, unlike Shea Weber, he is not waiting back at the point to bomb shots; his mobility allows him to move freely through the zone to create chances for his team. Fleury had no issues jumping up toward the net like a forward, and it often caught opposing defenders napping, allowing him to generate goals or at least high-danger chances.
His patience to find clear shooting lanes also made him a major benefit on the Rocket power play. He would collect pucks at the point and calmly wait for defenders to move or open up space for him before making his move on net. While he does have a more-than-capable slapshot, Fleury’s wrist-shot was utilized with great effect in these situations, allowing him snap off quick shots to beat goalies.
On the other side of the puck, he had no issues with the increased physicality of the professional game, battling hard in his own zone and occasionally dishing out devastating bodychecks to opponents. There is more to his defensive ability than his -16 rating shows, and factoring in the thin lineup in Laval most nights, he deserves to be commended for his work on the back end over his rookie season.
For Fleury to take the next step he does need to begin rounding out his defensive game, and some added depth behind him should help with that. He is not lacking in defensive awareness, but expecting a 20-year-old to carry most of the weight for the majority of the season is a big ask.
Taking another step offensively should be in the cards with the experience of one season and reinforcements joining the club. A very useful power-play threat, Fleury should begin generating some more at even strength next season. That will help him establish himself as a top call-up option.
As it stands, Fleury is right on the cusp of being an NHL player for Montreal. Their third spot on right defence is wide open with Noah Juulsen, Christian Folin, and Josh Brook seving as his competition for that spot.
After a great rookie season, the expectations for Fleury are much higher heading into next season. Bouchard knows what he has in the player, and Fleury himself has a full season of professional experience to grow on and use to improve his game this summer. He’ll be relied on as a regular top-four option in Laval again, likely playing big minutes on special teams.
A boost in his offensive numbers, and hopefully a playoff berth to show off his play under presssure is the expectation for Fleury and his group of fellow prospects next year. He has the talent to be a big part of a post-season run, and now is the time for another step forward for the Calgary native.