On Friday we discussed the arms race in the Atlantic Division and where the Montreal Canadiens fit into the discussion. Truthfully, they don’t, which is perfect for Kent Hughes and Co.
While every other team spends assets to become competitive in the short term, the Canadiens can afford to slow roll their rebuild, as to become competitive once most of the teams currently on top of the division start to tumble down the standings.
But there’s another interesting arms race occurring in the Atlantic Division.
It has less to do with standings and more to do with hockey being the last bastion for sanctioned bare-knuckle fighting in the world.
Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins added significant truculence to their lineup by signing Ryan Reaves and Milan Lucic, respectively. And while neither will find their way on the scoresheet with any regularity, they’re still among the toughest players in the league.
A quick review of their elimination from the playoffs will lead you to conclude that a lack of toughness was not the reason neither team met expectations. Rather, it was a matter of their star players failing to rise to the occasion.
But the addition of both Reaves and Lucic to the Atlantic Division will play a part in how busy Montreal Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj will be next season.
Montreal Canadiens Baptism By Wolves
Xhekaj’s rookie season was a whirlwind of excitement.
Not only did he earn a roster spot in the NHL as an undrafted defenceman directly out of the CHL, which is unheard of, but he also put together some decent underlying numbers in the process.
Prior to November 19, while Xhekaj was on the ice, the Canadiens controlled over 51.6 percent of the shots. In fact, only Jordan Harris had made a great impact in terms of shot control at that point.
Why are we isolating November 19, in particular?
It’s because of what happened in the game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Xhekaj, who had won all five of his fights before the matchup, including two in the preseason, faced Nicolas Deslauriers in a fight that marked the first time in his young NHL career that he was significantly outmatched. For the record, Xhekaj had also faced Mathieu Oliver in the previous game, marking the first time he took part in NHL fights in back-to-back regular-season games.
And while Deslauriers easily won the matchup, it also marked the point in the season when Xhekaj’s numbers crumbled. In the 26 games following the fight, the Canadiens managed to control a little more than 44 percent of the shots while Xhekaj was on the ice, good for 17th overall on the team in that time frame.
Things got slightly worse following his next back-to-back battles, which took place on January 17 against Adam Lowry and January 19 against Givani Smith. Xhekaj played just seven games following those fights, with his shot control numbers dropping to just 43 percent during his shifts.
The fight against Vincent Desharnais, Xhekaj’s final battle of the season, was a clear indication that the young player had put his body on the line for his team and was clearly ailing from the long list of fights against some of the strongest players in the league.
For the first half of the season, Xhekaj produced the type of numbers that would lead you to believe he has a very bright future in the NHL. And that’s exactly what he needs to do if he’s to maintain his place in the lineup.
Yes, he can fight with the best of him, and yes it’s entertaining to watch him steal a player’s soul, like when he tossed Zack Kassian around like a ragdoll.
But it’s also clear the fights took a toll on his body.
Now, with Reaves and Lucic in the Atlantic Division mix, some fans have mentioned their concern regarding Xhekaj’s 2023-24 fight card.
But his media availability to close out the season should put those fans at ease.
Xhekaj may be one of the scariest players in the NHL, but he’s no fool. He knows that his rookie fight card was probably too busy.
“I think about it more,” said Xhekaj. ” I think about my career, long-term, more now. I think about my timing more, and just the fact that I don’t need to prove myself anymore. I think I already have. Obviously, I’ll still play hard.”
There are two key aspects to his declarations. The first is that he recognizes he has long-term potential in the NHL, and the second is that he understands he no longer has to go out there and fight every player to prove that he belongs in the NHL.
There’s a fine balance to be had, and the more he fights, the more time he spends in the penalty box. The more time he spends in the penalty box means he has less time to make an impact on the ice. And if he stops making an impact on the ice, the less valuable he becomes to the franchise, especially if he has to watch games from the pressbox due to another injury.
Arber Xhekaj will continue to fight, but as he suggested, he no longer has to prove himself, and that should be music to Canadiens fans’ ears.
All Montreal Canadiens statistics via NaturalStatTrick.