It was a stoic Arber Xhekaj who addressed the media at the annual Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation golf tournament.
Xhekaj, 22, was one of the best stories that emerged from the 2022-23 NHL season. He made history by becoming the only undrafted defenceman in the history of the NHL who made the jump directly from CHL, a rather impressive achievement on its own. But he also established that he was more than just a fighter.
Yes, he’s one of the toughest players in the league, and yes, he played an integral part last year, providing crucial entertainment for Habs fans in a year that was otherwise disappointing from a performance point of view.
However, his impact went beyond stealing Zach Kassian’s soul at centre ice.
Can we talk about this sweet lil backhand pass by Arber Xhekaj?
— /r/Habs (@HabsOnReddit) October 23, 2022
Like most players on the team, his numbers eventually trailed off once injuries piled up, but for the better part of the season, Xhekaj was putting up healthy underlying numbers, indicating that many, including myself, misjudged his potential impact.
Xhekaj didn’t win all his fights, though his losses were few and far between. You could easily argue that former Habs forward Nicolas Deslauriers got the best of the rookie during their mid-season encounter, but the rest of his fight card featured several knockouts and many unanimous-decision wins.
Any time a young player enters the league and quickly gets the best of the majority of the tough guys, teams will take notice. Consequently, both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins added a significant element of truculence to their lineup, by signing Ryan Reaves and Milan Lucic, respectively.
Atlantic Division Arms Race
The 6’4, 240 lbs defenceman was asked about the recent additions to the Atlantic Division. He provided the media with an answer that proves he is wiser beyond his years.
“With a little more experience, I don’t have to get my name out there as much anymore with the physical side, because guys know,” said Xhekaj. “I’ll just stick to my game, and still bring the heat.
“I guess I might be the guy now that they’re coming for, but that’s okay, I’ll deal with it when the time comes,” said Xhekaj with a wry smile.
When specifically asked about Reaves and Lucic, Xhekaj once again brushed aside any notion that he should be worried about the roster changes from various opposing teams.
“I don’t really put too much stress on myself,” said Xhekaj, “They’re big, physical guys, but I’m not a small guy, either.”
Simply put, he is taking the right approach.
He knows he put the league on notice last year, but he’s not ready to rest on his laurels.
“Obviously last year, everything I did was a surprise to everyone,” he said. “This year, I have to bring my experience, and the same mentality I had last year, and I’ll be good.”
He’ll attempt to do so with a clean bill of health, which should be a significant factor as he continues to fight for a permanent role in the NHL.
According to Xhekaj, his shoulder is stronger than it was before. Logically, this will lead to an elevated level of confidence as he approaches the upcoming training camp.
But don’t mistake confidence for arrogance.
Few players in the league have a better appreciation of what it takes to succeed than Montreal Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj.