BROSSARD, Que. — When 19-year-old Victor Mete was asked on Wednesday if he’d experienced an overwhelming moment in one of his first four NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens, he laughed and shook his head.
“No, I don’t think so,” the defenceman said. “I think it’s been pretty good so far.”
It’s an answer that probably serves as the biggest justification for Mete’s claim to the job he’s currently holding on the Canadiens’ blue line — the one he appears poised to keep.
Through the early part of this season he’s faced off against some of the NHL’s most elite players in Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, New York’s Rick Nash, and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and he hasn’t appeared fazed by any of that for even a second.
Mete’s averaging over 18 minutes per game, playing alongside No. 1 defenceman Shea Weber, and he’s thriving under the spotlight that shines particularly bright in a hockey-mad market like Montreal.
“He’s handled himself really well,” said Canadiens defenceman David Schlemko, who has been nursing an injury since the first week of training camp and watching Mete evolve from the press box with each passing game. “I look back when I was 19 and I was nowhere near as composed, nowhere near where he’s at. He’s just doing his thing. He doesn’t really seem to get rattled by anything. He just skates well, moves the puck and plays his game.”
It’s a rarity to find a young player with more than a game under his belt who’s yet to experience feeling in over their head at this level, and it’s practically impossible to find a veteran who doesn’t distinctly remember the first time they felt that way. Schlemko could instantly recall his first days as a 21-year-old with the Arizona (née Phoenix) Coyotes back in 2008.
“It was in my first game,” Schlemko said. “I remember coming around the net and trying to throw a saucer pass and I fanned on it and put it right on my opponent’s tape and had to go back to the bench. Wayne Gretzky was my first coach so that was a little bit of an ‘Oh [expletive] moment,’ I guess.”
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price remembered that in his first game, played as a 20-year-old in 2007, was against Sidney Crosby’s high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a team filled with all-stars, from Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Petr Sykora and Marian Hossa.
“I was pretty nervous,” he said. “I think I probably scared myself into playing well (the Canadiens won 3-2 and Price made 26 saves).”
Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said he was crushed with a hit and left feeling embarrassed by Dion Phaneuf in one of his first NHL games, while Weber classified being hit in his first game by Detroit Red Wings legend and current Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman as “a welcome to the NHL moment.”
When we told the Canadiens’ leaders that Mete said he’s yet to experience an “oh [expletive] moment,” as Schlemko so eloquently put it, none of them were surprised. They’ve all been extremely impressed with his composure.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien’s been a broken record on the subject, lauding the teen’s skill and poise in nearly every press conference he’s held since mid-September. It’s gotten to the point where he’s openly admitted he’s getting tired of answering questions about Mete’s ability to play at this level.
Thankfully Price hasn’t.
The Canadiens netminder has walked in Mete’s shoes — earning a job in Montreal at 19 — and as a result is among the best positioned to explain why none of this appears to be too much for the kid to handle.
“He’s got good hockey sense, and I feel like if a player has good hockey sense he’s already ahead of the game,” said Price. “He doesn’t have to think out there, he just lets his instincts take over. It’s easier to play the game when you’re a step ahead.”
It also helps to have a partner like Weber breaking you in.
The 6-foot-4 Sicamous, B.C., native has taken Mete under his wing and taught him a great deal in a very short period of time.
From Mete’s vantage point, just watching Weber operate has been an eye-opening experience. He admits he’s blown away by the simplicity with which his partner goes about his business, captivated by his positioning and in awe of his brute physicality.
“He’s a big boy, and I can see people are scared of him across the league,” the Woodbridge, Ont. native said with a chuckle.
Weber had effusive praise for Mete, too.
“He’s very comfortable, poised, and I don’t think any of it fazes him,” he said. “I don’t think he thinks about it even twice. He’s a pretty calm kid and nothing really seems to get him worked up, either. He’s focused on what he needs to do and I’m pretty sure he’s having fun doing it.”
You have to think that so long as that’s the case, Mete’s staying in Montreal with the Canadiens. If he can maintain through the remainder of his first nine games, it won’t be a tough decision for management to dress him for a 10th to officially kick off the first year of his entry-level contract.
As far as Weber’s concerned, there’s no reason to doubt it’ll happen.
“I think [Mete] has been progressing,” Weber said. “He’s got the mobility and speed to do some great things with the puck, and he’s learning to use that speed and mobility on the other side — to angle guys and take time and space away from the other team’s best players and limit them. I think the more comfortable he can get with that, he’s going to become even better.
“But being as composed as he is the biggest challenge, so it’s huge that he’s already got that.”