To say Cale Fleury’s play has been strong of late might just be an understatement.
“Outstanding performance,” were the first words to escape the mouth of Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce, when asked about the play of his sophomore defenceman following Wednesday’s 5-3 setback in Regina.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound native of Calgary has come into his own during his second season with the Kootenay Ice and was involved in every facet of Wednesday’s game right from the first puck drop.
After a video review and overnight deliberation, it was determined he scored his team’s first goal with a seeing-eye point shot that eluded Pats goaltender Tyler Brown.
Late in the second period, Fleury’s intuitive play with the puck from the point once again led to a goal, this time a redirection courtesy affiliate Reed Morison.
And that’s just what Fleury did on the scoresheet.
What he does off the scoresheet is arguably more impressive, especially when you consider we’re talking about the play of a 17-year-old defenceman who isn’t eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until 2017.
The Ice (10-48-6-0) will need all of that and more from Fleury come Friday night (6 p.m. Mountain) when they visit the Prince Albert Raiders (34-21-7-1) at the Art Hauser Centre.
“We put a lot of responsibility on him midway through the year when we named him an assistant captain at a young age,” Pierce said. “There’s no question, as with any young player, he’s had his ups and downs. But his minutes are extremely significant, so the downs tend to really stand out. You can’t really hide or protect him because he’s such an important part of our team.
“[Tuesday in Medicine Hat] he was real good. [Wednesday in Regina] he was outstanding, We need contributions from our backend with the guys we’re missing up front. He was instrumental on [two goals] and he was good start to finish.”
While Fleury has been impressive since September, his emergence perhaps became more noticeable to the average eye when he was named an alternate captain in mid-January following the trade of Luke Philp.
“It’s huge, it’s nice we’re a young group and I can be a leader of that group moving forward,” Fleury said after being named part of his team’s leadership group.
“I just try to lead by example, not try to do anything too much, keep it simple like coach says.”
Spending most nights anchoring the second blue line pairing for Pierce, Fleury has become a steady, reliable presence at both ends of the rink and done exactly what he set out to do — lead by example.
Offensively, he has shattered his rookie scoring totals.
In 70 games played last season, Fleury amassed one goal and 13 points. In 53 games this season, he has already eclipsed those numbers by a long shot, having collected seven goals and 23 points.
When he arrived at camp this fall, he carried with him a much more imposing physical presence and he’s used that to his advantage.
Fans at Western Financial Place have probably lost count of the number of unsuspecting forwards Fleury has rag-dolled to this point in the season.
Defensively, Fleury is often matched up against opponents’ top units and more often than not, he has done well to keep skilled, veteran scorers to the perimeter and limit their grade ‘A’ opportunities.
What more could be asked of a 17-year-old defenceman?
With third-year veteran Troy Murray (neck/throat) out due to injury, Fleury’s minutes have become more critical since the Ice embarked on a four-game road trip.
Now with veteran centre Matt Alfaro (undisclosed) out of the lineup, along with big-bodied winger Austin Wellsby (undisclosed), Pierce is going to need even more from Fleury outside of his own end of the rink.
“They’re a big, physical group and we haven’t seen them for a long time,” Pierce said of the Raiders.
“They play well at home and they’re right in the thick of the battle. I expect everyone to be at their best.”
There’s no question the Ice have already received great value from Fleury after selecting him 78th overall in the fourth round of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft.
The only question that remains is how much greater will the return get as the former Notre Dame Hound continues to mature?
After visiting the Raiders, Fleury and the Ice wrap up a four-game trip when they take on the Saskatoon Blades (24-35-4-0) Saturday.