Haydn Fleury was in the Carolina Hurricanes lineup in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, paired defensively with Danny Biega in the preseason game.
For Fleury, the Canes’ first-round draft pick this year, it may be the last time the defenseman will wear the Carolina sweater for a year. It may be that the Hurricanes decide to return him to his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.
Fleury hopes that’s not the case. He wants to stick around, get in more games, get a better feel for the demands of the NHL. But if he does go back, he said he can accept it.
“It’s been a really good learning experience for me,” Fleury said Tuesday. “Every day you can learn something, whether you’re in the gym with the older guys or on the ice with them. You take away a lot of things that, if I don’t make the team this year, I can take back to junior.
“You realize how hard you have to work to play with these guys. You’re playing against men, not kids.”
Fleury, 18, who was on ice for two of the Blues’ goals Tuesday, was considered the second-best defenseman available in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, behind only Aaron Ekblad from Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League.
Fleury was one of the leaders in the Canes’ prospect conditioning camp in July. He then had a solid showing in the Traverse City (Mich.) prospects tournament just before the Canes began preseason training camp.
But from the start, the numbers game in training camp didn’t favor Fleury. There were eight defensemen who played 40 or more NHL games last season, and others such as Rasmus Rissanen, Michal Jordan and Biega looking to make the move up from the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League.
Fleury played in Carolina’s first exhibition game Sept. 21, thrust into NHL competition just days after camp began. He had 15 minutes of ice time against the Columbus Blue Jackets at PNC Arena and was on the ice for two of the Jackets’ goals in the 4-3 loss.
“I was a bit nervous at first,” Fleury said. “But as the game moves on and you start moving your feet, making plays, you get more into the game and the nerves go away.”
As for making his second start against the Blues, Fleury smiled and said, “I know St. Louis will have a pretty veteran lineup dressed and it should be a really good experience for me to go against a bunch of guys I used to watch every night and say, ‘I really want to play against those guys one day.’ ”
Guys such as forwards Alexander Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny. They were expected to play for the Blues, who were 0-3-1 in the preseason.
“Going into his second game, he should be a little quicker, make quicker decisions,” Canes coach Bill Peters said of Fleury.
Fleury, from Carlyle, Saskatchewan, skates well for someone who is 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds. He handles the puck well and appears to be a quick learner.
“I think he’s more comfortable with his surroundings,” Peters said. “I don’t think he’s as wide-eyed as he was in the beginning.”
Fleury said it helped that some of the older players such as veteran defenseman Jay Harrison were friendly and offered encouragement. He’s now more at ease.
If Fleury goes back to junior, he has a personal checklist prepared: get stronger physically, work on being stronger in the corners and in front of the net, help Red Deer have a big season and represent Canada in the 2015 World Junior Championship.
“I won’t take it personal,” he said. “If I go back I know it’s in the best interest of my development, so I’ll go there and work my hardest.”