Amid a 8-3-1 October for the Carolina Hurricanes that has gone just about as well as anyone could’ve hoped, there’s been one long-simmering problem that has finally come to the forefront.
Having perhaps the best defensive corps in the NHL comes with its very obviously benefits, but it also comes with a negative. That negative rests on the shoulders of Haydn Fleury who, despite playing some of the best hockey of his still-young NHL career, has found himself as the odd man out yet again on the Carolina blue line.
I wrote back in September that this would be Fleury’s big season. He’s on a one-way deal, he’s no longer waiver exempt, and he was running out of time to prove that he belonged on Carolina’s blue line long-term.
Well, with the additions of Jake Gardiner and Joel Edmundson and the return of Trevor van Riemsdyk from shoulder surgery, the short amount of time he had to truly prove himself has dissipated in an instant.
Fleury has skated in ten games for the Hurricanes through the first month and broke through in a few areas. He scored his first goal as an NHL player on Carolina’s road trip through Anaheim, he has shown the offensive side of his game that had yet to really breakthrough at the highest level, and he’s been able to do it while staying consistent with the defensive metrics that he’s had in recent years.
For a 23-year-old defenseman, these are positive developments. Especially when you consider the fact that he has still not even reached the 100-game mark (he has played in 97 NHL games) and the defining line for most young defensemen and finding out what they are is 200 NHL games.
The most troubling of all of the developments (or lack thereof) with Fleury is his increasing lack of usage.
As a rookie in 2017-18, Fleury played in 67 games and averaged 16:48 of ice time per night. Not bad for a 21-year-old defenseman. Last season, 2018-19, Fleury played in just 20 NHL games and saw that time on ice number dip dramatically to 12:32. And now this season, he has played in ten games and is averaging 11:03 of ice time, including a startling 5:59 in Anaheim and just 1:30 - two shifts - in Columbus before being scratched for games against Chicago and Calgary.
Dean Chynoweth and company clearly have a plan for their defense, and that plan obviously does not include Fleury barring some kind of injury.
In a lot of cases, you’d be fine with having a seventh defenseman sit in the press box and see 20 games in a season. In those cases, though, they aren’t 23-year-old former first-round picks who haven’t been given an opportunity to play consistently at the NHL level. We’re at the point where it isn’t helping anyone to use Fleury the way he’s being used.
Carolina’s 2014 first-round pick (who was drafted before William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers) continues to not return the value expected from that kind of investment and Fleury, the player, continues to have his development hindered by simply not playing enough hockey to improve at the rate that you’d expect of a seventh-overall pick.
In years past, the answer was to give him minutes in Charlotte, which they often did, but now that he is waiver eligible and making a flat-rate salary, that’s no longer a realistic option.
So, what now?
The Hurricanes can do one of two things right now. They could keep Fleury around and use him as the seventh defenseman, but that seems like a waste of an asset, especially when factoring in the fact that all of Jake Bean, Gustav Forsling, and Fredrik Claesson are all capable of playing NHL minutes when the need is there (perhaps Chase Priskie also can). Or, if Carolina wants to get a more veteran guy for their seventh defenseman role (a guy who could stay with the team all year and wouldn’t be as wasted with little playing time), they could go out and acquire that kind of player for relatively cheap.
The other option is to throw in the towel on the Haydn Fleury experience in Carolina. Trade Fleury to a team that needs defense and would give the player the ice time he needs in order to potentially take the next step as an NHL player.
I’m not sure what the return would look like for a guy like Fleury, but he’s played well enough to think that you could get something for him, be it a forward of equal standing with a team or a draft pick.
The thing that could deter the Canes from accepting a lower draft pick is the fact that Fleury was such a high pick. Trading a seventh-overall pick from five years ago for a such lesser-valued asset isn’t a great look, but it beats the alternative of keeping the player off the ice and not giving him the opportunity to turn into some semblance of a player who deserved to be taken that high.
Carolina’s blue line is deep, talented, and a big part of the reason that this team is 8-3-1 through the month of October. That being said, not everyone is benefiting from the current arrangement, and we’re getting very close to the point where something’s got to give.