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Canadiens’ Defensive Rotation Brings Clarity, Long-Term Benefit

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Montreal Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj

Seeing Arber Xhekaj or Jordan Harris sit in the press box for the Montreal Canadiens is a frustrating sight, but it’s part of a process that fans will surely appreciate down the road.

The Canadiens’ youngsters on the blue line have really hit the ground running in their careers thus far.

Xhekaj has impressed fans with his WWE-like persona and hidden offensive abilities, while Jordan Harris continues to play a solid and effective game on a nightly basis.

Despite that reality, they’ve been forced to skip a handful of games of late due to the returns of Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson.

Bottom line: They do not deserve to be scratched, but it’s a necessary evil that could wind up paying dividends.

Brille Par Son Absence

The French expression “Brille par son absence” (translates loosely to “standing out by their absence”) perfectly encapsulates what the Canadiens’ defensive brigade looks like when either is out of the lineup.

For starters, Arber Xhekaj acts like somewhat of a sheriff on the ice when he’s playing, as the Canadiens tend to be taken a little more seriously by physically-penchant players.

When he isn’t in a game, it’s pretty apparent that the Canadiens have only Josh Anderson and Joel Edmundson that could strike fear in their opponents, but both have been injured in the past by dropping the gloves.

Not only is the physical side diminished, but the hidden offensive abilities of Xhekaj are also missed; words I didn’t think I would write in 2022.

Xhekaj currently leads all rookie defencemen in the NHL with four goals so far this season, on top of having positive underlying numbers when he’s on the ice.

Jordan Harris, albeit not as flashy as Xhekaj, plays with an impressive level of poise in his game and rarely looks overwhelmed, despite his lack of experience in the league.

The two-way defender has some of the best advanced metrics on the team. He currently ranks fourth in expected goal differential (xGF%) and is one of four players to be above the 50% in controlled chances while on the ice (CF%).

Above that, he’s showing more of a penchant for offensive contribution since being benched a handful of time over the last month.

He’s playing with more fire in the offensive zone, activating in transition, like in the sequence below, while driving toward the high-danger areas with more confidence as of late.

Forced Decisions

The fear in regularly sitting young players is that they would eventually see a drop in confidence and, in turn, a drop in on-ice play.

But it’s been quite the contrary as of late, with Xhekaj and Harris in fact upping their games during this time to make the argument for sitting them even more difficult.

With the injury to David Savard putting the veetran’s status up in the air, Xhekaj and Harris could breathe easy for a little bit, but their uptick in play hasn’t gone unnoticed.

General Manager Kent Hughes will eventually have a decision to make on the direction of his defensive brigade.

Kaiden Guhle emerging as a bonafide top-4 defenceman as a rookie, with top pair responsibility, wasn’t likely not on his bingo card. Throw in the great play of Harris and Xhekaj, and the Canadiens suddenly have way too many left-shot D capable of holding their own in the NHL.

It gives Hughes the necessary security to begin including names like David Savard and, more importantly, Joel Edmundson in trade conversations with his peers.

Similarly to last season, Hughes will likely identify areas of excess and look to capitalize on it, just like the trade that brought Kirby Dach to Montreal.

It’s a great sign, despite the frustrating reality of seeing talented players skip their turn in the lineup. It’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction and a move is likely looming.

It puts the Montreal Canadiens in an advantageous situation, both in the present and in the future.

 

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