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Hurricanes prospect Haydn Fleury learning how to be great in Red Deer

Fleury's coaches have big hopes for his NHL career, but for now, the 2014 first-round draft selection of the Carolina Hurricanes is being groomed as a junior player.

Derek Leung

Brent Sutter stopped himself mid-sentence, started again, then stopped once more. He was struggling to find an answer. The question: Who does Haydn Fleury, the Red Deer Rebels' best player, remind you of?

"That's a tough one," Sutter admitted. And it was.

After all, how many teenage defensemen stand at 6'3, weigh more than 200 pounds and can skate like the wind? How many can level an opponent with a thundering hit, then steal the puck and create offense like a top-line forward?

"Very few," said Sutter, the general manager and head coach of the Rebels. "It's hard to compare Haydn to others. Different people will give you different names."

Some scouts think Fleury, now 18, is similar to a young Jay Bouwmeester. Others say he has a bit of Alex Pietrangelo in him. Given his stature, you may hear Brent Seabrook come up as well.

Red Deer associate coach Jeff Truitt, a defensive specialist, sets the bar a little higher.

"Haydn's a lot like Shea Weber," Truitt said. "He takes the body, skates with a hard edge, is heavy on the back end. And his offensive instincts are a lot like Duncan Keith's."

Comparing Fleury to a couple superstars may feel unwarranted, and that would be true in most situations. But Truitt, who has spent most of the last two decades at the junior level, worked closely with Weber and Keith when they played in Kelowna.

It was there, a little more than 10 years ago, where the perennial Norris Trophy candidates evolved into pros.

Truitt was the one who taught Weber how to harness his strength. You don't have to check your guy into the third row and put yourself out of position; just be sure to muscle him off the puck.

He taught Keith the importance of being responsible at both ends of the rink. You can't focus on scoring when you're 200 feet from the opponent's net; worry about moving out of your zone first.

Today, Fleury is receiving a blend of these two curriculums. And if last season is any indication, the young blue liner is one heck of a student.

* * *

Fleury enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2013-14 -- his first with Truitt -- tallying 46 points in 70 games. Quite the jump from 2012-13, when he finished with just 19 points in 66 contests.

That uptick in scoring, along with his size and speed, made Fleury a top prospect heading into the 2014 NHL Draft, where he was picked seventh overall by the Carolina Hurricanes -- the same club that picked Sutter's kid, Brandon, in 2007.

"It will be a good place for him," Sutter said of Carolina. "Ronnie [Francis] and Bill [Peters] know what they're doing down there."

Fleury got off to an encouraging start with the Canes, impressing management in the Traverse City tournament and through rookie camp. Training camp and preseason proved to be challenging, but adversity was expected.

Fleury was mentally ready for that adversity, in part because of the way he's treated in Red Deer. Sutter, who led the Rebels to a Memorial Cup Championship in 2001, prides himself in the professional atmosphere he's created, and firmly believes the kids flourish in it.

Such an environment is particularly beneficial for high-end prospects like Fleury, who learn what is required of them -- on and off the ice -- at the next level.

"[Sutter] holds me accountable every day," Fleury said. "He doesn't let any of my habits slip. I'm very grateful for that. He treats me like a pro. He treats everyone on the team like a pro. Being in Red Deer is a great spot for me. I'm very thankful for the opportunity I got there, and I owe that to Brent."

Indeed, Fleury is in good hand with the Rebels. And with the stakes raised, he understands how important it is to keep absorbing information.

"I need to be very trustworthy for the coaches this year," he told the Regina Leader Post. "[The Hurricanes] told me to just keep it simple, manage the game better and be ready to make their team full-time next year."

* * *

Fleury could make the Canes' roster next October, but that's far from a given. Sutter and Truitt agree that Fleury's defense needs a lot of work. His vision, which has come a long way, has to keep getting better. Offensively, he needs to finish more chances and limit turnovers.

These improvements should come. According to Truitt, Fleury is showing the same kind of inner drive Weber and Keith displayed way back when.

The key, it appears, is to make sure Fleury isn't plucked out of Red Deer with haste.

"There's no quick fix, and those who develop the best are the ones put in situations to always succeed, not fail," Sutter said. "You see it happen too often when guys are rushed into playing. They don't get to the level they want."

Interestingly, Sutter brought up Olli Maatta when discussing Fleury's progression. Maatta, currently one of the best young defensemen in the NHL despite suffered a scary health setback recently, needed to spend his age 18 season in the OHL to refine his game.

That extra stint in juniors proved valuable, and he was able to make a successful jump to Pittsburgh last fall. Fleury could benefit from a similar route.

Time will tell. For now, his focus is in Red Deer. He'll spend all of 2014-15 with the Rebels, and will compete internationally, too.

And, perhaps most importantly, he'll continue to learn from those who have already taught him so much.

"I truly think the world of Haydn," Sutter added. "He's not only a good hockey player, but a great person, a good teammate. We put a lot on his shoulders, and he can come back this year and be elite. I think he needs that.

"He can be a No. 1 defenseman in the NHL, and we'll get him ready as quick as we can."