Since returning from injury, Montreal Canadiens defenseman Arber Xhekaj has been playing his regular brand of steadfast hockey in the American Hockey League.
However, it’s difficult to envision him being down there for much longer, as he is simply too talented to not be in the NHL.
Canadiens fans notice when he is missing from the lineup for a variety of different reasons. It’s particularly noticeable when other teams start taking liberties with the Habs’ best players.
The main issue with a potential call-up is there is a healthy group of left-shot defensemen readily available for the Montreal Canadiens. And thus, a discussion would have to take place to figure out who Xhekaj would replace.
For now, I would like to take a trip into the future to project the impact Xhekaj will be able to make in the NHL once he hits his prime, by exploring players who share some of the same skills and measurements.
To start, Xhekaj has the same type of grit and toughness that kept opponents at bay whenever Larry Robinson patrolled the blueline. It’s a lofty start, admittedly, but let’s dive in.
Best NHL hit: Larry Robinson nails Gary Dornhoefer during the 1976 Stanley Cup Final between the Habs & the Flyers. The Flyers had won two consecutive Cups.
This series put an end to the Broad Street Bullies' winning streak.
The Habs would go on to win 4 straight Stanley Cups. pic.twitter.com/CkduMwzn3p
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) January 6, 2024
It’s not every day that you see a guy who stands at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds but is more than just a hulking, bruising defenceman.
Xhekaj has shown a penchant for driving the play up the ice with control of the puck. He has no issue maneuvering around forecheckers, and his awareness serves him well in the passing game. This leads to controlled exits, and consequently, controlled entries.
Can we talk about this sweet lil backhand pass by Arber Xhekaj?
— /r/Habs (@HabsOnReddit) October 23, 2022
With his head up, Xhekaj scans and uses his edges to pivot and find alternate routes to the offensive zone. When he finds himself in the offensive zone, he likes to fire quick, low snapshots on the net. The advantage of the low shots is that they are tippable and they lead to second-chance scoring opportunities. Statistically speaking, those are the best types of scoring chances in the NHL.
I feel inclined to mention Sheldon Souray as a comparable simply because of his size and big shot. And he was a good skater, relative to his size. But when it comes to Xhekaj’s shot, I think he’s closer to a low-cost alternative version of Zdeno Chara.
Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton have seen a ton of Chara during their time in Boston. I suspect they appreciate the importance of a player of his ilk in the lineup. I am not comparing the players per se, as Chara was recognized as an elite defenceman, but it’s fair to say Xhekaj can provide some of the same things for the Canadiens that Chara did for the Boston Bruins.
With that in mind, given his assignment to the AHL, I believe Hughes has given Xhekaj a development plan that includes three or four years of growth before he reaches his full potential.
The Sheriff Has Been On Patrol
Although Xhekaj hasn’t played in the NHL recently, he has taken his AHL assignment seriously.
But the fact of the matter remains that statistically speaking, Xhekaj has been one of the best defensemen on the team this season.
Consider this: Xhekaj leads all defencemen in shot share, with 50.7 percent. That means that when Xhekaj is on the ice, the Canadiens enjoy an advantage in shots. He’s also the only defenceman who has managed to control more than half the shots during his shifts.
In addition, Xhekaj leads all Canadiens blueliners in goal share (57.1 percent), expected goals (53.1 percent), and high-danger scoring chances (56.8 percent).
Once again, he’s the only player on the blueline to surpass the 50 percent mark in both expected goals and high-danger chances.
In otherwords, he’s not just a rough-and-tumble customer who forces opponents to play nice due to his physical prowess. When he’s on the ice, the Canadiens are a better team, full stop.
Yes, he plays on the third pairing, and that involves sheltered usage, but he plays those minutes to perfection, producing much better numbers than any other Canadiens defenceman who has featured in that situation.
With several players struggling defensively, including Justin Barron, I believe there’s room for Xhekaj on the NHL roster. Admittedly, Barron shoots right, whereas Xhekaj shoots left, but the balance in shot sides isn’t enough to justify keeping an impact player like Xhekaj in the AHL.
Despite the narrative, Xhekaj wasn’t playing poorly from a defensive standpoint before his injury.
Of course, his physical presence and penchant for standing up to the NHL’s toughest players would be welcomed back with open arms. Jayden Struble, David Savard, and Kaiden Guhle don’t shrink away from a challenge, but they would surely be happy to have The Sheriff back in town.
Xhekaj has stitched himself into the Canadiens’ culture. He represents exactly what fans have been clamoring for in the last few decades; a player who can hold his own on the ice while fighting for his team when the need arises.
It’s for that very reason that most Habs fans see him as the heart and soul of the blue line. I also believe that when the Canadiens start to make some noise in the postseason, they will be glad to have Xhekaj in the fold.
He is strong like an ox, hits hard, defends well, can quickly move the puck, and has an underrated shot.
Simply put, despite the logjam on defence, it would be foolish to trade a player like Xhekaj. It would come back to haunt the Montreal Canadiens once they realize it’s rather difficult to find another defensive unicorn that matches Xhekaj’s impact.
— Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) January 6, 2024
All Montreal Canadiens statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted. Via Natural Stat Trick.