The Carolina Hurricanes’ defensive youth movement is a story that has become quite well-known over the past year. The play of 24-year-old Olympian Justin Faulk, and the surprising contributions of rookies Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce delighted fans last season, but the youth on the blueline does not stop there.
Lost in the shuffle of last year’s young defensemen and the recent addition of 13th overall pick Jake Bean is another promising youngster, 2014 seventh overall pick Haydn Fleury.
He is perhaps the first indication of general manager Ron Francis’ commitment to building the team from the blueline out.
Fleury had another good season with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, in which he put up 12 goals and 41 points in 56 games. Continuing to show promise as a two-way defenseman, the 6-foot-3-inch, 221-pound Fleury will turn pro and start his entry level contract this year with either the Hurricanes or American Hockey League affiliate Charlotte Checkers.
“I need to come here every day, play my game, play to my strengths, work hard every day and keep pushing for that spot,” Fleury said of trying to come into training camp and make the Hurricanes roster this season.
Francis’ first-ever draft selection as general manager attended the Hurricanes’ annual Prospects Development Camp July 6-9 for the third time since he was drafted. He said it is something that has given him a greater familiarity with the organization that he is about to join.
“I think you know what to expect, what the coaches want and all the things you’re going to do throughout the week,” Fleury said. “It helps you be a little bit more comfortable.”
Watching Fleury at one of the practice sessions, it is clear he has grown as a player since drafted. He was poised and clearly a step above the younger players. His defensive instincts were impressive. In many of the defensive rush drills, he was able to bottle up forwards and keep them from getting by him for an open rush to the net, in addition to breaking up passes off the rush with his stick.
His offensive instincts stood out as the biggest improvement in his game since last year’s camp. Fleury was comfortable with the puck on his stick and was able to make crisp, tape-to-tape passes to move the puck up the ice. He even showed a little offensive flair, with a nice backhand deke and finish for a goal in the July 9 prospects’ scrimmage.
While Fleury appears to be ready or nearly ready to join the NHL ranks for the Canes, Francis cautioned that the team still wants to be patient with its prospects.
“You never say never, based on how our young guys played last year,” Francis said. “I think with some of the depth that we have, we’re in a position now where maybe, instead of pulling guys up when they may be ready or may not be ready, we have the luxury of leaving guys down there [in Charlotte].
“And on my terms, kind of becoming overripe so that when they come in, they’re more than ready to go,” Francis continued. “There’s guys down there that we feel are close, whether they crack the lineup on a full-time basis or not remains to be seen. We certainly feel comfortable if they can give us games, and we’ll see how things progress over the next few months.”
However, Fleury need only look what Hanifin, Slavin and Pesce were able to accomplish last season as rookies for encouragement.
“For sure, I think those guys all proved that if you come up here and play well that the organization is going to give you a chance,” Fleury said. “I want to follow in their footsteps.”
Fleury brings size, skills with the puck and a strong defensive acumen to the table, all traits prized by the Hurricanes’ organization. Though it is definitely difficult for a rookie blueliner to make his mark in the NHL, the Canes have already shown it can be done. The blueprint is there for Fleury — all he has to do is follow it.