Carolina Hurricanes: Now Or Never for Fleury

RALEIGH, NC - APRIL 15: Haydn Fleury #4 of the Carolina Hurricanes shoots the puck in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 15, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - APRIL 15: Haydn Fleury #4 of the Carolina Hurricanes shoots the puck in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 15, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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Five years removed from being the Seventh overall pick in the draft, is Haydn Fleury finally ready to prove his value to the Carolina Hurricanes? Or has his time passed?

The year was 2014. The Hurricanes, fresh off another disappointment of a season, were prepared to search far and wide for answers. Winds of change took the team by storm, with Kirk Muller shown a swift exit and now-Hall of Fame GM Jim Rutherford replaced by Ronnie Francis. The new regime was set.

But what wasn’t a mystery to anyone was how tough Francis’ job would be, inheriting a team full of brutal contracts, depleted of any prospect depth and no real direction. The defensive situation was especially horrid, with Ryan Murphy being the only intriguing prospect at the time. It didn’t take Francis long to address it.

In his first draft as General Manager, Francis did something the team had not done since 2005 – he selected a defenseman in the top-10 of the draft, taking Haydn Fleury from the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. The pick was a surprise to nobody. Fleury, the undisputed #2 D in the draft behind Aaron Ekblad, was widely projected to be drafted by the franchise and be the centerpiece of their defensive rebuild. It hasn’t gone quite that smoothly, however.

Through no fault of his own, the dynamic shifted quickly in Carolina. Fleury, while returned to his junior team for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, watched as the team drafted Noah Hanifin 5th overall in 2015 and immediately earn a spot. Jaccob Slavin, drafted 120th overall in 2012 despite being unranked by most scouts, came out of nowhere to earn his spot, as did Brett Pesce, drafted 67th the year before Fleury, in 2013.

Within two years of being drafted and heralded as the next great Hurricanes defenseman, Fleury’s limelight quickly faded and he became somewhat of an afterthought, despite a stellar junior career.

He turned pro in 2016, and spent his debut season with Charlotte, quietly, again, putting together a stellar rookie season. With Ron Hainsey traded, and unremarkable play from Murphy, Klas Dahlbeck and Matt Tennyson, Fleury looked primed to finally get his shot in 2017-18. And that he did.

After earning his spot in training camp, Fleury went on to play 67 games as an NHL rookie for coach Bill Peters, recording 8 assists and producing mixed results. Despite showing his obvious skill, a bad season from his partner Justin Faulk as well as rookie growing pains from Fleury left fans with split feelings about his NHL future.

Spoiled by the flawless emergence of Slavin and Pesce, some unfairly wrote Fleury off as a bust, while others were sold on his upside. He definitely caused a divide in the fanbase.

In spite of that, his proper development and slow-track to the NHL looked like it had finally paid off for Ron Francis’ once-golden boy, until Francis was unceremoniously fired and eventually ousted from the organization completely, never being able to fully see-out the development and result of the player he chose to lead his rebuild.

New GM Don Waddell and committee went out and signed Calvin De Haan to solidify the left-side of the defense, effectively removing Fleury from a spot and leaving his future cloudy at best.

Rumors proceeded to swirl around Fleury and the team for the entire summer, but the team held on to the prized prospect of the Francis era, despite no clear role for him. Inconsistent play from Trevor van Riemsdyk opened the door for Fleury to get a chance early, and he looked much improved, before an injury caused him to lose his spot once again.

He ended up playing just 20 games with the Carolina Hurricanes and was frequently demoted to the AHL, where he played 28 games for the Charlotte Checkers.

With an injury bug biting the Hurricanes defense hard in the playoffs, Fleury played in 9 of 15 games, and held his own albeit in a pretty limited role. He took that experience with him to Charlotte, where he shone for the Checkers in Calder Cup Playoffs, often looking like the best player on the ice, and proving that he’s far too good to be playing in the AHL.

Which brings us to now. After one season, Waddell angered fans by shipping off De Haan, largely in part of his belief in Fleury being ready for the NHL. Fleury, now finished his entry-level deal and, currently an RFA, would have to clear waivers to go to Charlotte next year which all but guarantees him a Hurricanes roster spot.

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He’s likely to sign a bridge deal, probably for 1 or 2 years, but a one-way contract, and a chance to finally make good on his 7th overall selection and cement his long-term future with the team. Can he do it?

All signs point to yes. This past season he took a massive step forward in his development, and looked filled with confidence. Fleury, long regarded as a two-way defender and capable all over the rink, has really blossomed as a terrific skater with good hockey IQ, picking the right times to join the rush offensively.

He also consistently makes great breakout passes thanks to his vision and really cleaned up his decision-making, which hampered him as a rookie. His detractors will point out that he has 0 goals in 87 NHL games, which is a pointless criticism for a defenseman.

He’s far from inept offensively – his vision, plus his ability as a skater and a passer make him a threat on the counter-attack. On top of that, he’s really rounded out as a defender, using his 6’3, 210-lb frame as an advantage in his own end. Now, all he needs is a chance.

So here we stand. Gone is the Francis regime who drafted this 17-year old kid from Carlyle, Saskatchewan, to lead the Carolina Hurricanes rebuild; but Fleury remains. It’s been a long journey, but here he is, finally on the cusp of his first fair NHL opportunity, and his time is now.

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So what do you think, Caniacs? Can the once prized prospect finally lock down his rightful place on the team? Or, will he falter and go down as the biggest mistake of the Francis era? Undoubtedly, we’ll soon find out.