Mike Stubbs: The NHL has become a perfect fit for Victor Mete

Montreal Canadiens' Victor Mete skates during an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Montreal, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Mete has signed a one-year extension with the Habs. Thursday, Oct. 9, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

It would be pretty difficult to find someone who knew for sure that Victor Mete was going to spend the 2017-18 season with the Montreal Canadiens.

Even the Canadiens wouldn’t be ready to admit that to any kind of certainty.

The proof is emblazoned across Mete’s back every time he pulls on a home or road sweater for a game. Mete was given number 53 as training camp began in Montreal. The 19-year old defenceman didn’t request it. Even with the incredible collection of retired and untouchable numbers in the Montreal’s storied history, 53, like 54 or 65 is a number that is reserved for players who aren’t guaranteed to hold down a roster spot once training camp has ended.

Players who fit that description usually have numbers like 6 or 20 or 23.

But Mete was undeterred by what was on his back. He is used to overcoming odds. The Woodbridge, Ont., native has dealt with questions throughout his entire hockey career about a description containing two other digits.

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Five-foot-10 inches.

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If you could go back in time 20 years and look around the hockey world, you would still find defencemen who didn’t have hulking size, but their lasting power in the National Hockey League was the equivalent to a series of bare-knuckle fights.

Greg Hawgood was an incredible major junior player in the mid-to-late ’80s for the Kamloops Blazers. Hawgood had point totals of 119, 123 and 133 in his final three seasons in the WHL. In his final junior season, he scored 48 goals.

Go ahead and argue that hockey was a different game back then. It was.

And there should be no question that Hawgood’s size was a deterrent. The Boston Bruins made him a 10th-round draft pick in 1986. By comparison, the NHL Entry Draft doesn’t even last 10 rounds now.

Hawgood was put in the class of “best junior player I ever saw” by more than a few fans, scouts and general managers, but he battled to stay in the NHL.

Just when it looked like he had a foothold, a coaching change or a trade would happen and he would have to prove himself all over again.

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Up and down and down and up from the NHL to the minors, with a jaunt to Europe every once in a while.

Hawgood carved out 1,226 games of professional hockey — 474 of those were played at the highest level.

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He played at a time when hacking and whacking was a part of the game. Then he played when hooking and holding were a part of the game. What would life have been like for him if Hawgood had been given room to move and asked to do less defensively with his body and more with his stick and his feet?

That’s where the game is now.

London Knights’ assistant coach Rick Steadman uses stick, feet and one other word to describe how Mete is succeeding and will continue to succeed in the National Hockey League.

“His stick, his feet and his head,” says Steadman.

The NHL game has never been less physical. You can’t hit what you can’t catch.

And the turnaround has happened as quickly as a Connor McDavid dash down the ice.

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The game has evolved, not just to include players with Victor Mete’s skill set, but to need them.

From 1997 to 2000, one player under six-feet tall was selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. That player was Sergei Samsonov. Go ahead and find it hard to believe that he played 888 games in the National Hockey League. It is. But he did.

Still, injuries took the explosiveness and slick skill out of him. Had he played now, Samsonov’s career might have had a very different story to tell.

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Mete was picked 100th overall by the Canadiens in 2016. Samuel Girard of the Shawinigan Cataractes was picked 47th overall by Nashville. Both were late cuts of Canada’s World Junior team last year. Both started this year in the NHL.

Put them into the 2017 draft a year later and they probably don’t have to wait as long as they did for their names to be called. Defenceman Cale Makar at five-foot-11 went fourth overall to the Colorado Avalanche and he possesses very similar abilities.

Very few things stay the same. If the weather is too hot for you, wait a while. It will cool down.

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The timing is absolutely perfect for Mete to hit the NHL.

Throw in the fact that he is a fantastic teammate and a great ambassador for any team he plays on, and the Canadiens really do have themselves a very nice gift that they weren’t necessarily expecting to open just yet.

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