The Montreal Canadiens training camp last year was interesting for a plethora of reasons.
Not only due to the arrival of Juraj Slafkovsky and Kirby Dach, among others, but also it gave Arber Xhekaj an opportunity to make a name for himself.
Saying he dropped the gloves would be an understatement. He clobbered any willing combatants, as evidenced by his knockout of Ottawa Senators prospect Zachary Massicotte.
But, as we know now, Xhekaj’s physical prowess is not the only reason why Marc Bergevin signed the undrafted prospect.
More Than A Fighter
He moves around the ice with impressive agility, despite his imposing 6’4” and 240 lbs frame. He has handled himself well in all three zones while keeping opponents in check with his Hulk-like strength.
Given the list of guys he has fought, it’s hard to imagine why anybody would willingly challenge him.
But, Dmitri Voronkov of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who was playing his first NHL game, decided to test the Canadiens strongman in late October.
In the first period of his NHL debut, Voronkov became emboldened and hit Xhekaj from behind into the boards. As you can imagine, The Sheriff was in no mood for the shenanigans.
As soon as he rose to his feet, he went at Voronkov, and gave him his ‘welcome to the NHL moment’, going off on him as if he were the human equivalent of a punching bag.
Voronkov boards Xhekaj. #GoHabsGo
Xhekaj gets a minor for roughing. Voronkov for boarding. They fight. pic.twitter.com/ELRFlcaO1m
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) October 26, 2023
This shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Former Montreal Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque spoke about Xhekaj’s toughness prior to the start of the season on The Sick Podcast with Tony Marinaro.
Laraque, one of the strongest players to play in the NHL, ranked Xhekaj above some heavy hitters.
His top five strongest players included Xhekaj, Ryan Reaves, Milan Lucic, Nicholas Deslauriers, and Kurtis MacDermid.
Given Laraque’s history and reputation around the NHL, his endorsement comes with a certain degree of respect, but it was a bold statement from the former Canadien.
Xhekaj handled himself well against Reaves on the second night of the 2023-24 season. Though Reaves, who was embarrassed, argued that he was jumped, the incident left little doubt about Xhekaj’s physical prowess.
But when you throw a questionable hit, like he did on Kaiden Guhle, and you’re known for dropping the gloves, it’s a given that Reaves would have to answer. Reaves did his best, but Xhekaj’s strength took him by surprise.
Here's the full Xhekaj/Reaves play with the initial hit. pic.twitter.com/HFrhOuCSqy
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) October 11, 2023
Aside from some of the toughest guys in the league, most players know not to test Xhekaj.
The premiere fighters in the league will perhaps challenge him, due to a lack of true enforcers to fight. But the way he rag-dolled Voronkov after the awkward hit, and how he clears the front of the net should be enough to convince most to steer clear of the Hamilton, Ontario native.
With the rest of Xhekaj’s game developing so smoothly, one of the benefits of him fighting less will be increased ice time.
Good things happen when Xhekaj is on the ice, and as he explained on several occasions, he’s more than a fighter.
He uses his physical gifts to create time and space for himself. The improvement in his decision-making has been substantial and has allowed him to drive the play up the ice, which, consequently, helps his forwards in transition.
All this speaks to how Xhekaj can impact the game.
Spending more time on the ice rather than the sin bin will be a significant boon for his development. More opportunities on the power play and increased offensive zone starts will give him reps to use his shot and try more deceptive passes.
Can we talk about this sweet lil backhand pass by Arber Xhekaj?
— /r/Habs (@HabsOnReddit) October 23, 2022
His reputation should also lead to increased minutes during crucial parts of the game. He will benefit from his physicality in a manner which will serve the team better than simply dropping his mitts.
It’s also worth noting that despite being one of the toughest players in the league, Xhekaj’s underlying numbers have been rather impressive this season.
Xhekaj leads all Canadiens defencemen in shot share (52.4 CF%), and he’s also sporting an encouraging 54.6 percent of the expected goals during his shifts.
In other words, Xhekaj may be able to steal the souls of various opponents during fights, but more importantly, he makes a positive impact every time he takes to the ice for the Habs.
All Montreal Canadiens statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted. Via NaturalStatTrick.