Arber Xhekaj’s presence in the Montreal Canadiens opening-night lineup was one of the best feel-good stories surrounding the team in the last two years. It was also not widely expected to last. Most people believed that Xhekaj — rougher around the edges than his fellow rookie blue-liners — would eventually find himself on the sidelines as veterans like Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson returned to health.
Xhekaj’s first month did little to sway that narrative: while his pugilistic capabilities, penchant for physicality, and surprising soupçon of offence was a big hit with the fans, the newly monikered “Sheriff” also found himself a lightning rod for the officials’ attention. Xhekaj took six minors in nine October games, followed by eight more in 11 November matchups. The young defenceman’s persistent presence in the penalty box didn’t overshadow his on-ice swagger, but it did, to some degree, make it difficult to consider him a full-time NHLer.
Now, as the calendar has ticked over into February, Xhekaj’s roster spot is firmly cemented. Yes, a steady stream of blue-line injuries have helped keep him on the ice, but Xhekaj has responded to the opportunity. We’ve reached a point where he is mentioned in the same breath as Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris when discussing the Canadiens’ defence corps of the future. Of particular note, Xhekaj’s main drawback, his disciplinary troubles, are now more or less forgotten. Not because people stopped caring, but because the defender stopped giving them something to care about.
After starting his NHL career with 14 minor penalties in 20 games, Xhekaj has only taken four in the subsequent 29 games. This transformation wasn’t the result of the Sheriff becoming a boy scout; Xhekaj’s physical presence on the ice remains undiminished. In fact, he actually has more fighting majors — five — than minor infractions during that 29-game span. Rather, Xhekaj has executed a remarkable mid-season metamorphosis by adjusting how he applies his physicality.
After the 16th game of his career, an otherwise unremarkable 5-1 defeat at home to the New Jersey Devils, Xhekaj notably eases up for a period of six or seven games. Where he had recorded 14.4 hits per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time during his first 16 games (Section 1 in the chart below), that number dropped to 7.3 over the next six matches (Section 2). And then just as quickly as the defenceman had eased off the pace, he picked it right back up again, averaging 13.8 hits per 60 in the 27-game span from that point to the present day (Section 3). Within a six-game adjustment period, Xhekaj has seemingly discovered how to maintain his hitting game without attracting undue attention from the striped arbiters.
His adjustments when it came to physicality did affect other aspects of his game. Namely, his offensive production took a dip, which was then duly corrected with little fanfare. While he was able to maintain his shot generation during his “no-hit” period (13.7 shot attempts per 60 minutes through his first 20 NHL games), the rookie found it difficult to produce offensively during that initial period when he relaunched his hitting game (9.9 shot attempts). As a testament to his adaptability, Xhekaj re-established his shooting volumes after a mere five games, returning to 13.2 shot attempts per 60 for the subsequent 22 matches.
By now, we’ve heard the refrain “the NHL is not a development league.” However, that doesn’t mean that someone cannot develop while playing in the NHL, and many players — rookies and veterans alike — adapt their games while serving as full-time NHLers to either assume greater roles or to maintain their foothold at the top level. Xhekaj’s ability, demonstrated here, to identify weaknesses, adjust accordingly, and not sacrifice the core attributes that earned him his roster spot in the first place is critical for his future as an NHLer. It may be a Cinderella story, but our protagonist certainly isn’t simply waiting for the clock to strike midnight.