Whether he makes the NHL roster or he starts the year in AHL Laval, the Montreal Canadiens have seemingly unearthed a gem in the fiery and belligerent defender, Arber Xhekaj.
The former OHLer has been a problem for his opponents since his junior days, playing the style of game that endears him to hometown fans and infuriates those who play against him.
Undrafted and signed to an entry-level deal after an impressive showing in training camp last year, Xhekaj earned this point in his career the hard way. He was an invitee to the Habs' rookie camp and then earned a call to the team’s main camp.
Returning to camp after helping the Hamilton Bulldogs to an OHL title and Memorial Cup run, Xhekaj is putting on a show. He's driving good results in pre-season games and already making “friends” with within the division.
To say Xhekaj has been a problem for his opponents this pre-season would be an understatement. He’s had memorable run-ins with players such as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Michael Bunting and just about everyone on the Ottawa Senators after the rookie tournament and four pre-season encounters.
"When their whole Sens Nation is talking about me, it's pretty good," Xhekaj told reporters on Friday.
"I like being the bad guy," Xhekaj added. "Off the ice, I'm a nice guy and I'm very calm and gentle. But when I get on the ice, it comes out of business, and I can flip the switch pretty quick."
Xhekaj is a bit of a throwback player. Bruising, overly aggressive and downright punishing as a defender. He also brings some modern qualities to his game such as quality puck-rushing ability and intelligent scanning when passing on the breakout. He has a big shot as well – and he certainly isn’t afraid to use it.
The 6-foot-4 defender has a mean streak that goes back to his days with the Kitchener Rangers. He's been suspended twice in the OHL. Once for a slew foot and another time for making a sleeping gesture after a fight in which he knocked his opponent out cold. The gesture was in response to his opponent taunting the Rangers’ bench after a fight in the two teams' previous meeting, but the OHL deemed Xhekaj’s response to be too far.
Xhekaj was feared in the OHL. Opponents had to game plan for him. They understood that while he may cross the line at times, he plays right on it most of the time and punishes you. Xhekaj understood how to play a simple, safe and effective defensive game while also battering his opponents in front of the net and along the boards. He effectively blended the old-school enforcer with the modern-day defensive blueliner.
That physicality and brash nature that Xhekaj brings to the game has endeared him to the Canadiens' coaching staff and management, as well as fans. Those qualities are also why he may have a case to at least start the season with the big club.
After trading away longtime net front protector Ben Chiarot at last year’s trade deadline and losing rugged defender Joel Edmundson to an injury in training camp, the Canadiens' defensive corps is missing the aggressor they've had over the last few years. This is where Xhekaj may be able to step in.
There are very few, if any, that would argue that 2020 first-round pick Kaiden Guhle isn’t the more talented defender, but this isn’t an argument about who is more skilled. Inserting Xhekaj into the lineup would be about roster construction.
While Guhle is likely to get NHL time with the club at some point this upcoming season, it’s the rough-and-tumble Xhekaj that makes sense to fill the void that Edmundson temporarily leaves behind. Guhle is a much more well-rounded defender who certainly has the ability to defend and move pucks up ice the way that Xhekaj does, and while he can be physical, it’s just not to the same degree that Xhekaj is capable of.
The Canadiens are going through a development year after bottoming out and finishing at the bottom of the league standings. They likely won’t be competing for the playoffs this season unless something miraculous happens. The youth will be featured heavily throughout the year with players like Cole Caufield and Justin Barron taking on full-time roles and others such as Guhle or Juraj Slafkovsky competing to get into big chunks of games with the big club.
Xhekaj may not have been among that group of young players who were expected to get into NHL games, but his performance in training camp and pre-season has earned him that right. Even if he doesn’t start the season in the NHL filling in for Edmundson, he will be a candidate to receive a call-up at some point this year.
Whenever he does get into the NHL lineup in Montreal, the opposing team better watch out. Xhekaj doesn’t care who you are – he’s coming for you.