BROSSARD, Que. — Victor Mete told Sportsnet on Tuesday that he first started to believe in his ability to compete at the NHL level during his first pre-season game.
The five-foot-10 defenceman didn’t spit out the typical, “I’m here to make the NHL,” mantra most freshly drafted players do upon their arrival at training camp. He simply just put his head down and got to work, and as a result, nearly two weeks after lacing up his skates for the team’s first exhibition game at the Bell Centre, the kid who spent his summer training with athletes from other sports—and didn’t spend a second of it on the ice with any NHL veterans—can now officially say he’s a Montreal Canadien.
Mete is the youngest player on the roster and he figures to be one of its most important ones, too. On a team that doesn’t feature a single other defenceman who can skate as fluidly as he does, he’s a natural fit as a partner for Shea Weber.
That’s the role Mete’s been in since training camp got underway, and it’s the role he’s expected to keep—at least until he plays his way out of it or another player on the team emerges as a better candidate.
There will be efforts made to shelter him but he wouldn’t still be in Montreal if members of management and the coaching staff had any reservations about whether or not he could handle all that comes with playing with Weber. Canadiens coach Claude Julien can control the matchups on home ice and will take care to ensure the team’s fourth-round pick in 2016 won’t have to face the top players on the opposition on every shift.
“Throughout my experience, you can try to [protect a young player like Mete], and you do,” Julien said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, when you’re on the road, you don’t always get the last [line] change. So it’s one of those things where you also have to feel confident that the player can handle that. Whether you want him to handle these situations all night long, or if you say, ‘You may end up against certain players two, three times tonight and you have to make sure you do the job.’”
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is a believer. Standing across from Mete’s stall in the dressing room after the team’s practice on Tuesday, he said, “It takes a special player to be able to come into the NHL and play with that amount of poise.”
He added: “He sees the ice well, and I think that’s why he’s so poised with the puck. He’s always got his head up and he’s got very good situational awareness.”
Now it’s time to see how Mete handles everything else that comes with being a professional hockey player. He hasn’t yet devoted a single thought to how the grind of NHL travel might affect him, nor has he had much time to consider the general tendencies of his competition.
Mete even mentioned that he’s still somewhat in awe of playing next to Weber, who was a player he’d often use as part of his regular roster in the video game NHL ’09 for PlayStation.
That type of naiveté could serve him well out of the gate.
“I was able to just go out and play freely without thinking much about anything other than what I was trying to do,” said 22-year-old Artturi Lehkonen, who scored 18 goals and 28 points in 73 games with the Canadiens before notching two goals and two assists in six Stanley Cup playoff games against the New York Rangers in his rookie campaign last season. “There’s something good about having nothing to lose.”
It’s not the same luxury that will be afforded to Charles Hudon, who played three full seasons in the AHL before cracking this season’s Canadiens roster. He’s had two short auditions at this level and been sent packing in a hurry on both occasions. You know he won’t take for granted the job he earned next to Lehkonen and veteran centreman Tomas Plekanec.
Jacob de la Rose knows the stakes, too. The former second-round pick is piercing through to start the season after playing 33 games with the Canadiens in 2014-15, 22 in 2015-16, and just nine in 2016-17.
“I didn’t become a different player overnight,” said de la Rose. “I keep working on things and try to play with more confidence.”
Success on that front will give him the edge in a battle with veteran Torrey Mitchell for a spot on the fourth line, currently between Paul Byron and Ales Hemsky.
Jonathan Drouin will centre Max Pacioretty and Bredan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk will start on the left side of Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw to round things out at forward.
On the back end, Karl Alzner, who signed a five-year, $23.1 million contract with the Canadiens on July 1, will play with Jeff Petry, and Jordie Benn will partner with Mark Streit. Joe Morrow and Brandon Davidson are still in the mix, and David Schlemko, who has missed the majority of the pre-season with a deep bone-bruise in his hand, has been placed on the injured reserve list.
The Canadiens’ roster has taken shape rather predictably, but no one could’ve foreseen Mete’s arrival on the scene at this stage—not even him.
“Obviously, the work isn’t done here,” Mete said.
It’s just getting started, as the Canadiens prepare to open to the 2017-18 regular season in Buffalo, against the Sabres on Thursday night.