Carolina Hurricanes

Do the Hurricanes have a weak link on defense? Is this former top pick the answer?

NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire was extolling an accumulation of defensive talent by the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, rolling out names and superlatives.

McGuire called defenseman Jaccob Slavin probably the “best-kept secret” in the league and said Noah Hanifin is “just scratching the surface” of his potential. He talked of Justin Faulk being an offensive threat, the understated consistency of Brett Pesce and all that Trevor van Riemsdyk would add to the Canes’ blue line this season after winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Not said: anything about the Canes’ sixth defenseman.

The top five defensemen are set – van Riemsdyk the oldest of the five at 26. It’s a young, talented and now experienced group that must be the envy of many a general manager in the league.

Canes coach Bill Peters says he has no worries about the sixth D-man, which likely will be rookie Haydn Fleury in the Canes’ season-opener Saturday against the Minnesota Wild at PNC Arena.

Asked Sunday how he feels about his sixth defenseman with training camp ending, Peters quickly replied, “Real comfortable. What a great group of six it is. Unreal. As deep as anybody’s six.”

Last season, the Canes looked at such defensemen as Matt Tennyson, Klas Dahlbeck and Jakub Nakladal in the third pairing. Ryan Murphy also took a turn but the Canes’ former first-round draft choice didn’t get the job done, eventually was injured and later traded.

Canes general manager Ron Francis traded for van Riemsdyk, believing a better group of six would lead to less time in the D zone, more offensive zone time and, in theory, more scoring for a team that needs more scoring if it’s to qualify for the playoffs for first time since 2009.

Now, another first-rounder will get his chance.

Fleury was taken by the Canes with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, a year ahead of Hanifin, who jumped into the Canes’ lineup at 18 and has played the past two seasons. At 21, it may now be Fleury’s time, Fleury’s turn.

“This is big,” he said during camp. “I’ve got to put some pressure on myself to come out, make this team this year and show them I’m ready to play here.”

After four seasons of junior hockey with Red Deer in the Western Hockey League, Fleury moved up and played his first professional season in 2016-17 with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ American Hockey League affiliate.

At 6-3 and 221 pounds, Fleury became “hard to play against,” as Peters put it, especially in the second half of the AHL season as the Checkers surged to reach the playoffs. His development had then-Checkers coach Ulf Samuelsson calling it a “breakout season” and led to a chat with Francis at the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago.

Fleury said when he was drafted in 2014, Francis told him it would be a process getting to the NHL and that he would need to be patient. That’s not what 18-year-old first-round picks like to be told, but Fleury said he tried to take it to heart.

This year, Fleury was back at the NHL Draft with his family as younger brother Cale, a defenseman, was drafted in the third round by the Montreal Canadiens. Again, he chatted with Francis, and with Peters.

“Both thought it’d be good idea to come in early and get settled and get ready for the season,” he said.

Fleury was in Raleigh the first week of August. He put in off-ice workouts with Canes trainer Bill Burniston and was among the first players at the informal team skates at Raleigh Center Ice.

With Burniston, the training focused on jumping and side-to-side movements, Fleury said.

“I got leaner and faster and more explosive,” Fleury said. “Just trying to be more athletic.”

During training camp, Fleury often has had van Riemsdyk as his defensive partner. That should be the third defensive pairing heading into the opener unless Peters decides to go with the more veteran Dahlbeck instead of a rookie.

“He makes a real good first pass and he’s 6-3 and skates well,” Peters said of Fleury. “There’s a lot of things to like about him.”

Fleury had some rough patches in preseason, including a memorable one-on-one confrontation with Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers that ended with McDavid scoring. But he also made his mark – and was marked.

In the Canes’ first home preseason game, Fleury dropped the gloves to trade punches with Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli after Cirelli boarded center Derek Ryan. Fleury was left with a red welt over his left eye after his first fight in two years – “Line brawl in Red Deer when I was 19,” he said.

“That’s a guy who looks like he’s hungry and wants to be in the National Hockey League and probably trying to tell us he’s done with the American Hockey League,” Peters said after the game.

That’s pretty much it, Fleury would agree.

“When you’e a kid you don’t dream of playing in the American Hockey League,” he said. “You dream of playing in the NHL. That was always my dream and I really feel like I’m ready to play this year.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

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