It helped that Haydn Fleury played well in Finland with Ron Francis watching from the stands.
It helped that Fleury, a defenseman with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, has good size and good hockey sense and is a good skater.
When it was time for the Carolina Hurricanes to make their first-round pick Friday in the 2014 NHL draft in Philadelphia, Francis didn’t hesitate. The Canes made Fleury the seventh overall selection in Francis’ first draft as general manager.
“Our guys really liked him,” Francis said. “He’s a very big, mobile defenseman. He’s got a lot of upside. We were very pleased he was sitting there at 7 when we were picking.”
The Canes, like most NHL teams, were coy about their potential pick before the draft at Wells Fargo Center. There was much talk about adding size to a team that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference, and there were forwards with size available when it was Carolina’s turn at the podium.
But Francis believed Fleury was the best player available. At 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, he has a physical frame that can carry more weight. He had eight goals and 38 assists in 70 games for the Rebels and has been a standout for Team Canada in international junior competition.
Fleury, who will turn 18 on July 8, was named the top defenseman in the 2014 World Under-18 Championship in Finland, a tournament Francis attended. That wasn’t the tipping point on the draft decision, Francis said, but it was a factor in the choice.
“The upside, we think, is unlimited,” said Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting. “He’s just scratching the surface as a player.
“It’s so difficult to get defensemen today who can play the NHL game and this guy can do that. That’s why we stepped up and took a defenseman.”
But Francis, who compared Fleury to St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, said the Canes won’t rush Fleury. They’ll bring him in for the prospects conditioning camp in July, then have him compete in the Traverse City (Mich.) rookie tournament, and he could be invited to the Canes’ preseason training camp in the fall.
Another option would be returning Fleury to Red Deer for another year of junior hockey.
“I’ll work hard this summer and come into camp and try to make the best impression I can, and try to make it hard on the team to send me back,” Fleury said. “But at the end of the day if I do get sent back I’ll go back and keep working hard and help my junior team win games.”
Fleury was plus-15 for Red Deer, an indication of his defensive effectiveness. MacDonald said Fleury’s offensive game was “still evolving” and that his shot needed improvement.
“Can he come in and run your power play in his first couple of years? No,” MacDonald said. “But he could develop into a guy who can play on your power play.
“He’s a guy who will log a lot of minutes. The way he skates and with his size, he should be a guy who can maybe play 25 minutes a game. Those guys are hard to find.”
Asked Friday to describe the emotions of the day, Fleury said, “Just excitement, I think. I got a bit on edge during the day and was nervous, not knowing where I would go. At the end of the day, there are no words to describe it. Just a great feeling.”
Canes assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour announced the selection at the podium – a task once handled by Francis when Rutherford was the GM. Taking the stage, Fleury, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan, shook hands with Francis and Brind’Amour, later calling that another highlight of the night.
“They’re both hockey icons,” he said.
Francis said the Canes interviewed Fleury at the NHL prospects combine and again this week in Philadelphia, noting Fleury was “just a very mature kid, very solid.”
The draft continues Saturday with the second through the seventh rounds, with the Canes again looking for size. And perhaps a few forwards.