MONTREAL — On Monday, the Montreal Canadiens gathered at the Bell Centre for their annual photo shoot.
Moments later, with the ice clear and practice set to begin, the 20-year-olds, who both earned their way into that photograph thanks to excellent training camps, found themselves on the outside of the projected lineup for Montreal’s game Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Nothing’s set in stone just yet, but it’s more probable Fleury and Suzuki will be scratched than it is that they’ll be playing at the Bell Centre.
It’s a reality that doesn’t diminish what either player has accomplished to date, and one that shouldn’t be looked at in a negative light.
Yes, it’s true: Confidence is a delicate thing and measures must be taken to keep it intact, especially when it comes to players taking their first strides in the National Hockey League. But diminished ice-time is part of the deal for such players, and there’s much more for them to take out of the experience of being with the team than there is in just playing in the games.
“I think there’s a tonne of value,” said 34-year-old Canadiens captain Shea Weber after Monday’s practice. “I think that just practising with guys who are a lot bigger and stronger than they’re used to is huge. In junior, they’re usually the most dominant players on their teams, if not the top players in the entire league, so just for them to be around the speed of the game in the NHL and the practices is beneficial. Even if they’re not getting as much time as they would in junior in the games, it’s beneficial.”
Weber knows. He was once in Fleury’s shoes as a 20-year-old trying to cement his place with the Nashville Predators in 2006-07 after he earned some precious experience in the American Hockey League. He had a pair of all-star veterans in Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timmonen to lean on when he had questions. They were players to model his game after, and he says they had a considerable influence on his development.
“It was huge,” Weber said. “I always had great guys before me that were so helpful and nice to me. I was thankful to them for giving me insight, and support, and other stuff. And who knows? Without some of those guys and what they did for me, I don’t know where I’d be.”
That’s part of what Fleury and Suzuki are getting here in Montreal. This is a process, and both of them are submitting to it with open minds and an eagerness to develop, even if it means playing less than they want.
What’s Suzuki taking out of it?
“Trying to learn how all these guys kind of think,” he said. “Trying to talk to as many guys as possible. P.K. (penalty kill) today, power play, 5-on-5—just asking little questions about what makes it hard on our defence so I can kind of do that on the other team’s D.”
The London, Ont., native would like to apply the lesson against a supremely talented Tampa side, but he understands that he might not have that opportunity.
“I think if I’m up (in the press box) I can watch and get a good bird’s eye view,” he said. “Tampa’s also a good team to watch and watch some of their best players. I think both experiences (playing or watching) are good for learning.”
Fleury, who had an excellent start in Carolina on Oct. 3 before having a disastrous outing with Brett Kulak in Toronto on Oct. 5, has had to watch Montreal’s last three games.
He’s taken good things out of the experience.
“The game moves a lot slower from up there than it does on the ice, but it gives you perspective watching from there,” he said. “Sometimes, you have a bit more time than you think.”
It’s not going to be a permanent place for the Carlyle, Sask., native.
Fleury’s a bad performance from another Canadiens defenceman away from drawing back into their lineup. And if one doesn’t come soon, Montreal has the option of getting him into games with their AHL affiliate in Laval and recalling him to Montreal without subjecting him to waivers.
“It’s not that it’s tempting; it’s something we can do,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “Tempting is probably a word, but for us it’s more, ‘Hey, if he’s not going to play, we can always send him there and we can always bring him back.’ That’s the good part about players who don’t need waivers and having your (AHL) team so close by. It’s an easy adjustment to make and we’ve been fortunate to have our farm team right next to us in the last few years.”
There’s no shame in it if that’s where Fleury ends up. Same way there’s no issue if Suzuki has to watch the game against Tampa.
Both players have already accomplished much. Think about what goes into getting into your first team-photo.