Given the injuries and roster construction, there was little doubt the Canadiens would enter the 2022-23 season with at least one rookie on the blue line.
Perhaps even two, which is almost unheard of in the modern era.
As fate would have it, the Canadiens did in fact start the year with two rookie defencemen in the lineup, and then they doubled their historic approach by adding two more rookies to the mix
And while the excellent play from Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, and Johnathan Kovacevic has impressed, it’s the play from their undrafted rookie defenceman that has really blown Canadiens fans away.
It’s About The Destination, Not The Journey
Arber Xhekaj may be the best story in the NHL this season, and it’s not just because of his thunderous checks or surprising production.
He made the jump straight to the NHL from his junior club, which is quite rare when it comes to NHL defencemen. Players like Petr Svoboda and Victor Mete also started their professional careers with the Canadiens at a young age, however, there’s a very important distinction to make when it comes to their pedigree.
Guess who? pic.twitter.com/fVXwzgpCxp
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 17, 2022
Both Mete and Svoboda were drafted by the Canadiens, unlike Xhekaj, who went through three NHL Drafts without hearing his name called.
When it comes to undrafted defencemen making the jump from the CHL directly to the NHL, in the last few decades Xhekaj stands alone.
With four goals to his credit, Xhekaj leads all rookie defencemen in goal-scoring, and is currently sixth overall in points, behind teammates Jordan Harris, and Kaiden Guhle, as well as a pair of defencemen that have done the majority of their scoring on the power play: Calen Addison and Jake Sanderson.
Arber Xhekaj walks the line for his first NHL goal 🚨 pic.twitter.com/f3XNA2ipnR
— Jason Paul 🥥 (@WaveIntel) October 23, 2022
It’s worth noting Xhekaj never produced more than six goals during his four-year tenure with the Kitchener Rangers. In fact, after his rookie season, he never deviated from his scoring pace at all, scoring six goals and 11 assists the following three years.
Xhekaj is currently on pace to score 11 goals and 13 assists.
The Man Comes Around
The 20-year-old defenceman was well known for his rough-and-tumble style in the OHL, which led to many knockouts and even a suspension after he stole some poor soul’s life force.
But no one expected him to take the NHL’s fight scene by storm, except perhaps Arber himself.
He started by knocking out Senators prospect Zachary Massicotte during the prospect tournament in Buffalo.
Xhekaj went on to fight Mark Kastelic and Austin Watson in the following games, both of whom waited until he was at the end of his shift before engaging in combat, a strategic decision that still led to decisions in Xhekaj’s favour.
His magnum opus occurred on Oct.20, when he bullied Zack Kassian with great vengeance and furious anger.
Montreal rookie Arber Xhekaj gets the better of Zack Kassian in a fight pic.twitter.com/KMZvjURqmL
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) October 20, 2022
That’s not to say Xhekaj is the undisputed heavyweight champion in the NHL, as evidenced by his fight against Nicolas Deslauriers, but less than halfway into his rookie season it’s clear he’s among the toughest players in the league.
When Xhekaj is on the ice, the Canadiens control more shots than their season average.
The Canadiens have controlled a little over 49 percent of the shots this season, but when Xhekaj is on the ice, they end up controlling over 51 percent.
With 91 hits to his credit, Xhekaj ranks second in hitting among rookies, but the most thing to keep in mind is that he has not abandoned his defensive coverage when punishing opposing players with heavy body checks.
Xhekaj will need to curtail his habit of taking minor penalties, but as it stands, his entry into the NHL hasn’t just been impressive.
If you’d suggest a defenceman who went undrafted and spent no time in the AHL would end up being one of the most exciting rookies in the NHL, most people would have dismissed it as a fever dream.
But this is no dream.
It’s just a spectacular story that is yet to reach its exciting conclusion.