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After long wait, Hurricanes’ Fleury seizes opportunity

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Haydn Fleury took the long road to the NHL, and has had to fight for playing time throughout the last two years as part of a deep Hurricanes’ blue line. But in these playoffs, he earned his shot, and is making the most of it by playing the best hockey of his career.

Carolina Hurricanes v Boston Bruins - Game One Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Hurricanes vs. Bruins, round one, game one. Boston leads 3-2 about halfway through the third period. The Bruins have controlled much of the game, but the Canes are right there, and need a big goal to even the score. One might have looked to one of the usual suspects to come through in the clutch: Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Dougie Hamilton, etc.

Haydn Fleury, to the casual observer, would have seemed like an odd choice. After all, the defenseman had just four career NHL goals, and had yet to score one in the postseason. But he came through, sniping home a shot from the blue line to knot the game at three.

To the Hurricanes, and the team’s followers, perhaps it wasn’t so strange to see Fleury step up in a big moment. He’s been getting better and better as this season has progressed, from playing bigger and bigger minutes down the stretch, to fighting his way through the Hurricanes’ defensive log jam after the NHL returned from its COVID-19 pause and leaving the coaching staff no choice but to play him, to now having arguably been the Canes’ best defender through three games against Boston.

This has been a long time coming for Fleury.

“It feels really good,” Fleury said. “It’s something I’ve been working towards. I’ve been believing in myself for a long time. It’s started to show now, it started to show before the pause and it’s kind of just trying to roll with it and keep going, keep playing with confidence and playing my game.”

Fleury’s pedigree always showed that he had this in him. After all, he was a top-10 pick, selected No. 7 overall in the 2014 draft, and the second blueliner off the board behind first overall pick Aaron Ekblad.

Fleury profiled as a big defenseman who could skate, make plays and jump into the rush when needed, Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ former director of scouting, told the team’s website at the time. Fast forward six years, and the flashes of those elements that showed in Fleury’s game throughout his first season through his first three years in the NHL are on display consistently.

They’re certainly showing loud and clear for head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who called Fleury’s name from the podium that night in Philadelphia.

“He was a high pick,” Brind’Amour said. “We have a lot of high hopes for him. I think you’re just starting now to see what we expected when we picked him up. I think it’s been tough for him because we haven’t been able to use him as much over the last year and a half. He’s been a healthy scratch, just because of the numbers.

“We’ve had some pretty good D playing ahead of him. But he’s handled it really well. When he finally did get his opportunity, he’s taken it now and he’s starting to really show that he belongs. I think he’s just going to keep getting better.”

As Brind’Amour alluded to, it would have been easy for Fleury to get frustrated. After all, it’s not as if his game has magically transformed overnight: He showed these abilities throughout the regular season, but more often than not fell victim to the Hurricanes’ defensive logjam, playing just 45 of the team’s 68 games.

Despite the Canes trading away Calvin de Haan in the offseason, Fleury’s battle for minutes on a blue line that already included stalwarts like Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, the slope of Fleury’s battle for playing time only got steeper. The Hurricanes signed Jake Gardiner out of left field in September, and then, when Justin Faulk was traded to St. Louis, another NHL blue liner in Joel Edmundson was part of the return.

Though Fleury did score that elusive first NHL goal in November, it would have been easy for him to get discouraged through the many nights in the press box.

But he stayed the course, and heeded the counsel of Brind’Amour that his time would come. And come it did, through an unfortunate situation. First, the Hurricanes lost Hamilton to fractured fibula in February, then Brett Pesce to a shoulder injury in March.

Though the Hurricanes picked up Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen (who did not end up playing a regular season game) at the trade deadline, the thought was that it was time to call upon the aforementioned depth on the blue line. That opened the door for someone like Fleury, who, from January through the end of the regular season, played 24 games, averaged 16:26 per game, chipped in two goals and nine points and was a +2.

“There were some tough days,” Fleury said. “At the end of the day, everyone wants to play. Everyone has confidence in themselves and thinks they should play every night. For me, that wasn’t the case at the start of the year. Roddy kept saying, ‘There’s going to be an injury, there’s going to be something happening where we’re going to need you every night. Unfortunately, Dougie got hurt but that was kind of the start for me. I kind of tried to roll with that opportunity and take advantage of it.”

As the Hurricanes returned for training camp in July, the blue line was loaded once again, with nine healthy NHL defensemen available. It was fair to wonder if Fleury would once again be an unfortunate victim of the by now familiar numbers game on the Hurricanes’ blue line. Not on his watch.

With a strong camp and strong performance against the Washington Capitals in the team’s exhibition game, Fleury forced his coaching staff’s hand, and he’s played in every playoff game so far. He was good against the Rangers, with him and Jake Gardiner comprising one of the better D pairings in the qualifying round.

But against the Bruins, playing with either Gardiner or Trevor van Riemsdyk, Fleury has looked like a man on a mission, and one who does not want to see the inside of a press box (or, in this case, the stands) again. Beyond the clutch goal, he’s playing sound defensive hockey against a deep Boston forward group, with a +2 rating despite Carolina losing two of three games.

He’s added an impressive element of snarl to his game, with 10 hits so far in these playoffs (including four apiece in games one and two of this series), several of which have been of the bone-crunching variety.

For a veteran goalie like James Reimer, who’s backstopped the Canes to two wins this postseason, and played behind plenty of D corps, good and bad, in his career, the front row seat to Fleury’s breakout has been impressive.

“Fleury’s been great,” Reimer said. “Our D corps, I think it speaks for itself, it’s probably one of the best in the league. You can really trust them. I think Fleury really fits into that. He’s responsible with the puck, he’s a good skater, he’s a big body. Anytime as a defenseman that you can have a big body, still move and still skate, it’s huge. So he’s been super dependable these whole playoffs. He’s made great plays, big hits, big blocks. He’s just been in the right place. So I’m really happy for him for the way he’s been playing.”

The waiting game has made this moment all the better for Fleury, and it’s one he’s used to. While the common refrain is that defensemen take a long time to develop, despite his top-10 pedigree, it would be three full seasons before Fleury saw the NHL, and 2019-20 is the first year he played exclusively with the Canes.

He played two additional years with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels that included hosting the 2016 Memorial Cup, spent a full season in Charlotte and played an important role in the Checkers’ Calder Cup win last season. For Fleury, now, it’s easy to see that all the time developing was worth it, and those lessons learned and experience gained played a key role in getting him to where he is today.

“It started in junior getting coached by Brent Sutter and his staff there,” Fleury said. “The last year we hosted the Memorial Cup, so it’s playing in big events like that and World Juniors, then playing in the Calder Cup last year and the NHL playoffs with the Canes,” Fleury said. “It’s all experiences that you can learn from, and build your confidence towards getting an opportunity like I am now.”

If the Hurricanes are going to fight their way back from a 2-1 series deficit against the Bruins, better defensive play will need to be a big factor.

If the first three games of the series are any indication, Haydn Fleury will be front and center in that. After all, this is what he’s been waiting for.