When the Montreal Canadiens lost their best defenceman to injury, it opened a window of opportunity for players such as Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris, and Johnathan Kovacevic.
But now that Mike Matheson is set to return to the lineup, the decision regarding the distribution of ice time is more difficult than originally anticipated.
And that’s a very good sign.
Harris and Kovacevic have formed the most surprising and reliable pairing for the Canadiens. With an eye on their underlying numbers, St-Louis wisely kept the duo together at practice Friday Morning.
Matheson slotted in beside Joel Edmundson, pushing Xhekaj to the bottom of the depth chart alongside Chris Wideman.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) November 18, 2022
The pairings are a little surprising, given Xhekaj has surpassed all expectations this season with the Montreal Canadiens, but they are based on logic.
Edmundson has struggled since returning to the lineup. Adding Matheson to the pairing should lead to much better puck control, which mitigates the time Edmundson will spend in his own zone.
“His skating is very efficient,” said St-Louis. “He covers a lot of ice. He’ll be able to eat a lot of minutes for us.”
In addition, Matheson is among the best defencemen in terms of puck retrieval and controlled exits, which should increase the time the Canadiens spend in the offensive zone.
“He’s one of the skaters I’ve seen on the ice,” said Edmundson. “Definitely a smart defenceman. He uses his speed to get out of sticky situations. He’s got a great shot too. We’re looking forward to him returning to the lineup.”
But Matheson’s imminent return does leave Xhekaj as the odd man out.
X Marks The Spot
The Canadiens could send the burly defenceman to Laval to receive more ice time, but the Rocket currently have an abundance of defencemen in the lineup.
Much like their parent club, the Rocket are sitting players who do not necessarily deserve to watch a game from the press box. Adding Xhekaj to the mix would complicate the situation, though it’s certainly an option if the Canadiens feel he’d be better off in the AHL.
However, St-Louis has mentioned he prefers to keep the forwards capped at 13, leaving him with 8 defencemen in the mix.
When it comes to managing morale in the locker room, it’s much easier to assign a rookie to the press box as part of a rotating cast of players than it is to tell a veteran who is looking to create momentum for their next contract that they’ll be a healthy scratch
With Jonathan Drouin’s injury and Rem Pitlick’s assignment to Laval, St-Louis has reached his preferred roster split between defencemen and forwards.
Of course, the Canadiens could also look to trade one of their veteran defenceman, which would be the ideal long-term scenario, but even though they’ve generally played well, there’s value in insulating the many rookies on the blue line with veteran mentors.
Regardless of how they approach the situation, Xhekaj sees this as an opportunity to push himself to the next level.
“I don’t really know what is going to happen,” said Xhekaj. “But it allows me to work harder, even harder than I’ve been working, still bring that confidence in my game. It just takes mental toughness, and I think I’m mentally strong, and that’s what’s going to bring my confidence up every night.”
It’s impossible to predict which avenue the Montreal Canadiens will take, but as long as they can rotate him into the lineup with some semblance of regularity, keeping Xhekaj in the NHL seems to be the most logical choice from an organizational point of view.
For the time being.