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More than just a goon: How Arber Xhekaj is carving a path to the NHL

Tough as nails, but with plenty of other weapons, how did the undrafted defender find himself on the cusp of an NHL job?

NHL: OCT 04 Senators at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Montreal Canadiens opened their 2021 rookie camp, an odd name caught everyone’s eye in the world of Habs fandom. Just who was Arber Xhekaj? It turned out that he was a physically gifted over-ager from the OHL, one who spent the year working at his local Costco because the OHL season was cancelled due to COVID-19. He looked raw in the games he played in, but managed to improve each time, so much so that at the end of the Canadiens’ training camp he was signed to a three-year entry-level contract.

He returned to the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, and for the next year of hockey he conducted a reign of terror over the league that would have made Robespierre blush. There was no fight he shied away from, no hit he didn’t want to throw, and, unfortunately, no suspension he wouldn’t take. One was due to his recklessness (see his suspension for slewfooting), but another was due to him taunting a rival who had wronged his team while he was out of the lineup.

His willingness to be the sheriff for the Rangers, and then later on the Hamilton Bulldogs, is commendable. However, despite being known as one of the scariest players to take the ice in the OHL, he was developing even further into being a well-rounded defenceman.

With Kitchener he matched his previous best goal and point totals, then doubled them in his time with Hamilton. To cap that off, despite 50 penalty minutes in just 18 games, Xhekaj posted a near point-per-game pace as his hometown Bulldogs won an OHL title and advanced to the Memorial Cup.

Fast forward another few months, and Xhekaj was ready for his first pro season, and that would begin by playing for the Habs in a rookie showcase in Buffalo, New York. I was able to attend the event, and as I watched him, play two things stuck out.

  1. This kid wants to make his presence felt on every single shift.
  2. He needs to not chase every possible hit if he wants to play a regular amount of time.

While he underwhelmed a bit in his first game, his second game saw the full display of what he was capable of on the ice. Against the Ottawa Senators, he took two players out of the game with his style of play, one with an admittedly late hit, and one in a fight after said hit. It was here that Xhekaj made himself a lot of online enemies, and also fully endeared himself to the Habs fanbase.

Zachary Massicotte, a big man in his own right, challenged Xhekaj shortly after he exited the box, and despite trading equal blows to start, the Habs defender uncorked two punches that knocked him out. The gauntlet was down, and with four pre-season games against the Senators, it was likely there was going to be a response.

There have been attempts at responding in the pre-season, with Mark Kastelic attempting to tussle with Xhekaj at the end of a shift, and Xhekaj hammering Austin Watson after a hit on Kirby Dach, but the young gun is standing his ground still.

The tenacity, the willingness to toss the gloves off for a fight, and overall toughness are huge parts of Xhekaj’s game, but he’s developed into much more than just a goon. His skating, for a man of his size, is excellent. He moves through the zones with power and purpose, turning himself into a puck carrying threat.

He’s far from a finished product as a transitional player, but he’s leaning heavily into his strengths even more now. He can skate, attempting to create space for teammates while doing so, and when given the chance, will shoot the puck on net.

His evolution into a player who can contribute at both ends of the ice has led from him being a guy likely destined for the AHL immediately, to someone who is forcing the Montreal Canadiens to think long and hard about sending him down. He is a rare breed by today’s standards of defencemen, as normally posting triple-digit penalty minutes limits your usefulness on the ice. Yet Xhekaj continues to improve every time I watch him play, learning from mistakes from game to game and even shift to shift.

There is still work to be done, but watching the maturation of a guy I thought might become a Jarred Tinordi clone into something much more diverse has me giddy. I don’t know if Xhekaj will make the Habs opening-night roster, but if he does it’s because he’s worked hard every step of the way to do so. From skating when he could between COVID closures and Costco shifts, to playing 30-plus minutes a night for the OHL champions, his path to an NHL has been anything but normal.