Comments / New

2023 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #17 Arber Xhekaj

Photo: Brandon Taylor/OHL Images


It’s hard to find anyone who has captured the hearts and minds of the Montreal Canadiens fanbase in the last two years more than Arber Xhekaj has. Since arriving for rookie camp, the bruising defender has guided his hometown OHL team to a championship and Memorial Cup birth, then, upon turning pro, cut a swath of violence through the NHL starting in the pre-season and going right up until the moment his popped his shoulder out of its socket in a fight.

Originally it looked like Xhekaj was going to take some time to grow in the AHL with the Laval Rocket, but his tremendous pre-season showing  forced the hand of the Canadiens to keep him in the lineup. In 51 NHL games, he tallied five goals and eight assists, and while not the biggest point totals, there were more levels to Xhekaj’s game that made him stand out.

It didn’t take long for the rookie defenceman to establish himself as one of the most fearsome fighters in the NHL, starting at a prospect showcase in Buffalo when he knocked Zachary Massicotte into another dimension. He finally caught the attention of the rest of the NHL after Zack Kassian challenged him to a fight at the Bell Centre.

It did not go well for Kassian, and the legend of Xhekaj was born.

With that level of tenacity and willingness to defend his teammates, Xhekaj found himself as a target for antagonists around the league. Sometimes he got even, sometimes he got sent to an early shower as his temper got the best of him.

With a year of professional hockey under his belt, and some knowledge about when to pick his spots, Xhekaj is primed for a huge growing season with the Canadiens.


The voting for Arber Xhekaj was clustered extremely closely, with 75% of the panel sticking him between 21st and 15th in the ranking. It isn’t a total surprise that others rated him much higher given his skill set that no one else in the organization possesses.

T25U25 History

2022 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #21 Arber Xhekaj
The bashing blue-liner debuts in the Top 25 after an impressive final year in the OHL.

Xhekaj’s stellar run with the Hamilton Bulldogs earned him a spot within the Top 25 last summer. He rises four positions ahead of his sophomore campaign.

History of #17

Year #17
2022 Rafaël Harvey-Pinard
2021 Riley Kidney
2020 Lukas Vejdemo
2019 Lukas Vejdemo
2018 Cayden Primeau
2017 Simon Bourque
2016 Daniel Audette
2015 Noah Juulsen
2014 Christian Thomas
2013 Jacob de la Rose
2012 Mac Bennett
2011 Mac Bennett
2010 Joonas Nattinen


Xhekaj is, above all else, a physically dominating presence on every shift he takes. He throws the body with bad intentions in mind, leaving opponents wondering if they were just hit by a bus along the boards, or, in some cases, how they ended up back on the bench. His impressive skating ability allows him to close gaps quickly at his own blue line, and to recover upon finishing his checks. He is now established as one of the NHL’s premier pugilists, landing punches in volume that have left some of the league’s toughest players regretting their choices.

He has shown to be far more than a walking, punching machine of destruction. His skating is outstanding for a player who stands 6’4″ and weighs 240 pounds. He can cover ground quickly with or without the puck and recover into good defensive position easily.

He also packs potentially the hardest shot of any defenceman on the team, hammering slapshots with devastating effect. He doesn’t just fire it blindly into defenders, getting a significant portion of his attempts on target. That makes him a dark horse power-play option, which might see his point totals climb a fair bit if the Habs choose to trust him in that role.


Part of what makes Xhekaj unique is also a weak spot in his game. His willingness to run head-first into the fray for his teammates is commendable, and has endeared him to the fanbase forever, but in some cases he needs to understand that discretion is the better part of valour.

His spends a lot of time in the box, and with the poor quality of the Canadiens’ penalty kill, it’s a bad recipe. Turning down the goading of opponents will go a long way toward improving his overall game and keeping himself out of the penalty box and the Habs penalty kill off the ice.

Part of his learning curve is also positioning mistakes, as he tends to sometimes chase the hit and abandon his defensive assignments in his own zone. Continuing to hone his defensive reads after gaining a valuable year of experience is going to do a lot for pushing him to that next level.


Xhekaj has been a man of surprises since he first arrived to Montreal’s development camp a few years ago. He left that evaluation with an NHL contract, then pushed his team to an OHL title before making the NHL out of training camp last year. The new year comes with expectations that he can build on a solid rookie season with the Habs.

An already deep prospect pool on defence has grown deeper over the past 12 months, with several more big names on the cusp of joining the North American pro ranks as well. There is legitimate offensive upside in Xhekaj’s game, and unlocking more of that this season, while cutting down some of his time in the penalty box, is less a suggestion, and more a requisite for his NHL career.

There is little reason to believe that that role is in danger right now; he made the team as an unknown last year, and has had a year to grow under the watchful eye of the NHL staff. Taking that next step into being an everyday defenceman at the NHL level would be huge for Xhekaj, and the Canadiens, this year.

Patrik Bexell is joined by Sam McGilligan who explains Filip Mešár’s season and progress, and the arrival of Arber Xhekaj on the Canadiens NHL roster.

2023 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #18 Filip Mesar
In his second year in the ranking, Mesar drops eight spots.

Support Habs Eyes On The Prize by signing up for Norton 360