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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Canadiens defenceman Cale Fleury is now old enough to have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner in Ohio and other places on the road where the legal drinking age is 21.
Fleury turned 21 on Tuesday and celebrated Monday night in Columbus by having dinner with teammates Victor Mete, who turned 21 on June 7, Nick Suzuki, who won’t turn 21 until Aug. 19, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who only turned 19 on July 6.
Fleury has been a pleasant surprise for the Canadiens this season, earning a regular spot on the third defence pairing as a rookie after being selected in the third round (87th overall) at the 2017 NHL Draft.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder scored his first NHL goal — which was also his first point — in Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre and heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets was averaging 14:23 of ice time per game and was minus-2. Fleury ranked third on the Canadiens in hits (45) despite missing four games early in the season as a healthy scratch and one more with an injury. The only Canadiens with more hits were Jeff Petry (54) and Joel Armia (47), while Fleury had one more hit than Ben Chiarot.
Has coach Claude Julien been surprised by Fleury’s performance?
“Surprise is something that you kind of look at and say: I know this player so well,” Julien said Tuesday morning at Nationwide Arena. “He was in the minors last year (with the AHL’s Laval Rocket), I didn’t get to see him that much. So I came to camp, we had him on our radar as far as a guy that we wanted to look at. But he had an unbelievable camp and he’s still playing really well.
“He’s making mistakes out there,” Julien added. “He’s no different than anybody else. But overall he’s been a pretty good player. We like his physicality, we like the fact that he skates well with the puck, he’s got a good shot. He’s got a lot of upside. As I keep saying — and it seems like day after day — is that we’ve got a lot of these guys to improve by playing them and living with some of their mistakes.”
Canadiens assistant GM Trevor Timmins and his scouting staff deserve credit for picking Fleury in the third round of the draft, a year after selecting Mete in the fourth round (100th overall). Heading into Tuesday’s game, Mete had 3-3-6 totals while averaging 17:53 of ice time and was plus-9, tied with Phillip Danault for the team’s best plus/minus rating.
“He’s gotten better,” Julien said about the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Mete. “I think with players like that, it takes a while. What ends up happening is because it’s not about the physicality, it’s about outsmarting the opponent and having a good stick and being in the right position. It takes time and I think he’s just getting better at it.
“There’s no doubt everybody knows that if there’s an area where he’s really had to work hard on it’s that area, where he’s improved a lot,” the coach added. “We knew he could skate with the puck, but this year he’s skating with it, he’s making plays. Not the fact that he’s scored three goals already, but he’s had some good scoring chances on top of that. I think the confidence there has gotten better for him. So I think he’s trending in the right direction.”
So are the Canadiens with all the young talent on this team. The Canadiens have six players who are 24 or younger, including Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen, both 24. Brendan Gallagher is 27, Danault, Joel Armia and Nick Cousins are all 26, while Brett Kulak is 25.
Fleury noted he hasn’t had a “welcome to the NHL moment” that stands out, saying: “I think just kind of every day … the guys in the room — especially some of the older guys that have been in the league for a long time — just kind of hanging around with those guys kind of puts it in perspective that I’m here.”
Fleury had been living with Suzuki in one of the Canadiens’ Bell Centre condos, but Suzuki was recently given the green light by the team to find his own place and has moved out. Fleury hasn’t been told to find his own place yet.
Fleury was asked Tuesday morning what’s the best birthday gift he received as a kid growing up in Calgary.
“Me and my brother (Haydn, who is a defenceman with the Carolina Hurricanes) got mini-stick nets one year … I don’t remember if it was a birthday or Christmas,” he said. “They were metal mini-stick nets and we put a lot of hours in the basement. We had an unfinished basement, so it was perfect for us to go hard.”
Was there anything special Fleury wanted for his 21st birthday?
“Nothing much,” he said. “Just hanging out with my buddies was good last night.”
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