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Canadiens Analysis

Struble Emergence Gives Canadiens Options Moving Forward



Montreal Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj

After an encouraging start to his NHL career, Montreal Canadiens fans are already falling in love with Jayden Struble and what he brings to this team.

His simple, physical game is reminiscent of Arber Xhekaj’s play, and fans and media members already see the former as a potential upgrade on the latter.

The numbers disagree, at least for now. Xhekaj leads the Canadiens in expected goals for percentage (53 xGF%) and is the only Canadiens defenceman in the top 100 league-wide.

However, Struble has played well through a difficult stretch for the team. He leads all Habs defencemen in shot share (51 CF%) when he’s on the ice. His quick puck retrievals and efficient breakouts have led to a significant uptick in shots.

Statistically speaking, both defencemen have been well above average for the Canadiens.

For now, Xhekaj has been re-assigned to the Laval Rocket in a bid to give him a little more time to prepare himself for his return to the NHL.

But what if the Canadiens do believe Strubble is an upgrade on The Sherrif?

I have a suggestion, and you may not like it at first, but bear with me.

History Of Successful Reassignments

What if the Canadiens tried the rough-and-tumble player as a forward?

As explained in Moneyball, changing a player’s position is rather difficult, but not impossible.

There have been many examples of players drafted as forwards who went on to become successful NHL defencemen. Brent Burns and Andreï Markov are two somewhat recent examples of that.

But the opposite operation (from defence to forward) tends to happen more frequently, and there are some really solid examples to draw from.

If we go way back, eight-time Stanley Cup winner Red Kelly won his first four championships as a defenceman for the Detroit Red Wings, before starting a second career as a centerman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning four more. The transition didn’t prevent him from being nominated as one of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time.

Leafs favourite Wendel Clark was also drafted as a defenceman, before being converted to forward, and scoring 564 points in 793 games, over an 18-season career.

His feisty, physical brand of hockey was to be reckoned with, and you had to watch over your shoulder, before going into corners, when #17 was on the ice. This could be the type of forechecker Xhekaj could be as a winger.

But a realistic comparable could be the 2003 Chicago Blackhawks draftee, Dustin Byfuglien.

The hulking, 6’5 defender was turned into a forward at the start of the 07-08 season, as the Hawks needed a big-body presence in front of the net.

While he wasn’t a prolific scorer, never notching more than 36 points in three seasons as a winger for Chicago, Big Buff was nonetheless an instrumental contributor to the team’s 2010 Stanley Cup Championship.

Why Trying Xhekaj As A Winger Might Work?

First, one thing Struble can likely not replace is Xhekaj’s fighting skills. While it’s less and less required in today’s NHL, it remains that #72 is one of the top heavy-weight brawlers.

Keeping him as a winger could be a creative way to retain his enforcer services while offering spots to other players on the blue line.

Also, one of Arber’s strengths is his heavy wrist shot. While it’s great that he manages to get it through traffic, and on net from the point, it rarely converts as a goal. Perhaps if given more opportunities to unleash it from up close, this would create different outcomes.

Heck, it may be lethal, as he’s shown he can literally shoot the puck through the net.

Ultimately, the logical use of Xhekaj as a winger would be to create space for smaller players, win battles on the board, and screen goaltenders as an immovable net-front presence – not to expect him to score 25 goals a season.

This seems like a realistic ask from him.

Xhekaj has shown some ability to gain the offensive zone and stick-handle his way passed opponents at times, too.

Moving him up the ice may also reduce the number of penalties he takes in his own zone, as a result of his defensive shortcomings. Another positive for Martin St-Louis.

He could become what Mike McCarron never managed to: a scary problem for the other teams’ defencemen. Can you imagine racing to win a puck dump battle with Arber in tow? Frightening.

This could be the type of creative problem-solving that could bolster both the Montreal Canadiens blue line and forwards group with one stroke.

With the potential logjam on the left side of the defence when Xhekaj returns, would it be worth a shot or not?

What do you think? Should Martin St-Louis try Arber Xhekaj as a Montreal Canadiens forward? Let us know in the comments below.