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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.

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NHL: SEP 26 Montreal Canadiens Scrimmage Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For most followers of the Montreal Canadiens, the first introduction to Arber Xhekaj came when he appeared on the list of players who would be attending rookie camp last September. All of the initial discussion revolved around how to pronounce his name, but “Jackeye” was used to having to prove himself, having gone unselected through multiple NHL drafts and even Ontario Hockey League drafts several years earlier. He showed enough talent in the rookie tournament to earn an entry-level contract, gaining a spot within an NHL organization days before beginning a final season of Junior hockey, and just a few months before his 21st birthday.

He was probably relieved to have a hockey future secured when he returned to the Kitchener Rangers for the first time in well over a year. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the Canadian Junior leagues, wiping out the 2020-21 OHL season entirely. At some point during the time off, his approach to the game seems to have changed, as he matched his production of 17 points from 2019-20 in just 18 matches.

That pace wasn’t maintained following a move to the Hamilton Bulldogs in January, but he still had 17 points in 33 games for his hometown team and contributed in other ways. With their new defenceman in the lineup, Hamilton lost just three times the rest of the way to head into the post-season as the league’s top team. The offensive production returned at the most important stage of the year, as he netted six goals and added 10 assists playing key minutes to help Hamilton win the OHL title.

Elite Prospects

The championship gave him the opportunity to end his Junior career with a trip to the Memorial Cup. It wasn’t an easy tournament for the Bulldogs as they started the tournament with two losses, but they clawed their way through to get to the final, eventually falling to host Saint John Sea Dogs.

Named to the OHL’s third All-Star Team while in Saint John, Xhekaj put up five assists and was an important pillar on the blue line at the Memorial Cup, and that earned him a place on the tournament all-star team at the conclusion of the event.

Voting

A majority of panellists had Xhekaj ranked inside the top 20, kicking off what is a new tier in this countdown after a cluster of players a few points lower by their average vote. The EOTP community vote is one of the highest, placing him at 17.

History of #21

Year #21
Year #21
2021 Gianni Fairbrother
2020 Sean Farrell
2019 Joni Ikonen / Jayden Struble
2018 Jacob Olofsson
2017 Martin Réway
2016 Simon Bourque
2015 Lukas Vejdemo
2014 Michael McCarron
2013 Greg Pateryn
2012 Darren Dietz
2011 Gabriel Dumont
2010 Mac Bennett

Strengths

The defenceman used to name Drew Doughty as the player he modeled his game after, but now standing 6’4” and weighing in at 225 pounds, he sees himself more as a Ben Chiarot type, recognizing his similarities to the fellow Hamiltonian.

There weren’t many forwards in the OHL who could outmuscle Xhekaj around the net this year, and he won’t find many at the AHL or NHL level, either. He plays a very tough game, and works hard to lock down his corner of the defensive zone.

Being fully aware that he has few peers on the physical side, he is very composed when in possession of the puck, showing no fear of getting overpowered while leading the transition game. He makes crisp passes to teammates to help get the puck out of his own zone.

“But that’s not all I am,” he explained at the Memorial Cup in a conversation with The Athletic. He does have the skating to get transitions started, moving well, especially for such a big player. He doesn’t labour around the ice on his shifts, and that contributes to the exceptional stamina that had him regularly playing more than 25 minutes per game in the post-season, and more when defence partner Nathan Staios went down with an injury at the tail end of the OHL playoffs.

He answered some of the questions about his offence that people had when he signed his entry-level deal a year ago. He has a powerful shot and got more out of it last season with a total of 18 goals, getting it on net with regularity, amassing 193 shots in 51 regular-season games.

Weaknesses

The main concern with Xhekaj is that his penalty-minute total was only slightly lower than his shot count, getting written up for 138 of them during the season, a league-leading rate of 2.71 per game. Somehow he took even more penalties in the playoffs, bumping up his rate to 2.78. There were 12 games last year in which he had at least five minutes worth of penalties, and was suspended on two occasions while playing with Kitchener: a five-game ban for a slew foot and a three-game sentence for miming a sleeping gesture after knocking an opponent unconscious in a fight.

The high penalty totals have been explained by some as simply being a lot bigger than his opposition and having his hits look like more dangerous infractions, which is probably true for some of the penalties assessed. But he also has an undisciplined style of play that is going to result in calls. He’s often described as “mean” in his physical brand of hockey, not just making contact with forwards trying to score on his net but making sure it hurts enough that they’re discouraged from trying again. It’s an effective strategy when you can get away with it, but that happens much less often in a game that now favours skill.

Penalties also come from a lack of positional discipline. He can be overly eager to race into the corner to break up a cycle or land a hit, and mistimed plays in those situations lead to boarding calls or, at the very least, trips, hooks, and holds. Against professional players it’s also going to lead to goals against as those opponents slip past him and get to the net, and those will be the teachable moments for his new coaching staff.

As for his play outside of his own zone, he could become a more effective transition player with better stickhandling. He can get around players if he’s moving with speed, but can get stripped of the puck by forwards with quicker hands. In the offensive zone he can use his mobility more to open up lanes for passes from teammates and for his own shots, which would turn him into a potent offensive weapon.

Projection

The fact that we’re listing suggestions to improve the transition and offensive play of a blue-liner who is most notable for his punishing defence is a testament to how well-rounded Xhekaj’s game is, and points to his potential. We’ve looked at several defencemen so far who may be able to focus on their one strength to put themselves in the conversation for an NHL call-up, but Xhekaj has the potential to be more.

Imposing size and the willingness (maybe slightly too much) to use it, relentless work ethic, a strong skating stride, a powerful shot, and oodles of confidence is a package of talents that few players possess. There is a good chance that he becomes an NHL player, and potentially a rather good one.

There are some concerns that he will have to address to convince everyone that he can reach that level. The few of us who had him ranked outside of the top 20 want to see his discipline issues reined in before granting him a spot among the top young players in the organization. He’s at his most effective when he’s challenging the limits of what is acceptable, but it’s a line he crossed over too many times last year.

Are the offensive numbers he put up last year a mirage created by a 21-year-old playing in an over-age season against teenagers? We typically see this pattern from players as they age out of the Junior ranks, having to start all over as rookies in the pro ranks. Not many expect him to be a star offensive producer, but being able to get pucks to the net and keep offensive presences going will need to be key features of his game, especially when there are a few others showing the same skill set in the organization.

We’ll soon find out how his game translates to the pro level when he (more than likely) starts his year in the AHL. The first few games will show if his defence holds up against forwards who have been working away in the minor leagues for years. Better defensive structures will test his shot production and playmaking talents, so adjustments are sure to be needed. We’ll see how his play adapts in his first year of professional hockey, and he’s one of the more intriguing prospects to follow this year.


Hadi Kalakeshe, Anton Rasegård and Patrik Bexell discuss entries 22 and 21.