CHARLOTTE It would be easy for Haydn Fleury to be impatient, even envious.
The defenseman, a first-round draft pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2014, has yet to make his NHL debut. Instead, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have quickly advanced and become regulars on the Canes’ blue line the past two seasons.
A month ago, Fleury saw Nelson Nogier, a former teammate with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, called up by the Winnipeg Jets and get in his first 10 NHL games. Nogier was the 101st pick in the 2014 NHL draft, taken in the fourth round.
But Fleury, 20, stayed put with the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League for his first full professional season. He was in 69 regular-season games, steadily showing progress, and was a big part of the Checkers’ late-season push into the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs.
“He’s had, in my opinion, a breakout year,” Checkers coach Ulf Samuelsson said. “He’s been one of our most consistent players. He’s taken a step maybe each month and the last month has made the biggest step because he’s now using his size.
“He’s hard to play against. He’s always been good joining the rush, jumping up, but he has turned into a really good two-way defenseman.”
That’s what the Canes wanted from Fleury, who has the size at 6-3 and 198 pounds to play in the NHL but needed added polish to his overall game. He showed more offensive capability, finishing with seven goals and 19 assists in the regular season. He also matched the franchise record with a plus-16 rating, one gauge of even-strength defensive play.
“I think I’ve developed a lot,” Fleury said in an interview. “The coaches here have been great with video and just pushing me in the areas I need to be pushed. The last little bit, the last half of the season, I really feel I progressed and my game has grown in a lot of areas. My defensive game came a long way. And then this last little bit of the season my offense picked up, and I’ve really contributed offensively.”
Had the Checkers not been in a dead-heat race with the Cleveland Monsters for a playoff spot late in the season, Fleury might have gotten a look with the Canes. The Checkers made it to postseason and took a 2-1 series lead over the Chicago Wolves on Sunday with a 4-3 overtime win.
Fleury, the seventh overall pick of the 2014 draft, said he hopes the Calder Cup experience will benefit him much as it did another young defenseman a year ago – Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Werenski, the No. 8 pick in the 2015 NHL draft, finished up a college season at Michigan before joining the Monsters in the AHL late in the regular season. He then was in 17 playoff games, contributing five goals and nine assists as the Monsters won the Calder Cup.
Werenski, 19, carried that over into this season and is a finalist for the 2017 Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
“Werenski came up from college, got hot and made it to the big club the next year,” Fleury said. “You kind of look at guys like that, and you want to have a good showing when the stage is at its highest.”
Moving from the WHL to the AHL is a big leap. While Fleury did get in one Checkers game at the tail-end of the 2015-16 season and even scored a goal, this was about facing stiffer competition and handling the grind in a lot of games, often in short time frames.
“It’s a big step from playing junior against, you know, kids to playing against 30-year-old men who are doing this for a living,” he said.
As for next season, Fleury will come to the Canes’ training camp eager to compete for a roster spot. He’s staying patient, believing his time will come.
“I just go out and play and work my hardest, day-in and day-out,” he said. “Just trust the process and believe in it.”