Connect with us

Canadiens Analysis

Canadiens: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Xhekaj



montreal canadiens arber xhekaj

One of the most interesting storylines following the Montreal Canadiens in the second half of the season has been their excellent play against top teams. They have not won many games, but they have managed to control the shots and scoring chances throughout the majority of the games since early February.

It’s a signal that despite the overall lack of talent in the lineup, the team’s core members have taken an important step forward, which bodes well for the team’s rebuild plans.

Several young players have helped power the improved process. Nick Suzuki is establishing his identity among the elite centres in the NHL, Cole Caufield has modified his game to add an important playmaking element to the mix, and Juraj Slafkovsky has started to produce at a rate that should be considered encouraging given his lack of points during his rookie season.

Of course, there’s more to a team than just one line.

Players like Joshua Roy and Alex Newhook seem ready to take some of the pressure off the first line’s shoulders, which will come in handy when the aforementioned players have a down night, as was the case on Tuesday against the Nashville Predators.

And while the forwards certainly deserve some credit, we also have to give attention to some of the young defencemen who are quietly helping the forwards improve their scoring chances with staunch defending and controlled exits from the defensive zone.

Jordan Harris, in particular, has done a great job, whereas Johnathan Kovacevic’s numbers have improved by leaps and bounds in 2024.

But there’s one player who receives more praise for his physical play than his defensive acumen, which is not a fair assessment of his value to the Montreal Canadiens.


Before we start discussing Arber Xhekaj’s impact on the ice, I would like to note that despite the narrative that his AHL assignment was a perfectly timed decision by the Canadiens that helped Xhekaj improve his game significantly, it doesn’t pass the sniff test when you evaluate his results.

His 5v5 impact is virtually identical when evaluating his pre and post-AHL stats. There was a slight downtick in shot share (CF%) and high-danger scoring chances (HDCF%), whereas his expected goal share (xGF%) improved a little.

Arber Xhekaj montreal canadiens stats

The one big improvement in his game has come in the form of his discipline. Xhekaj was taking far too many penalties in the NHL, which mitigated his value to a certain extent. Since coming back from the AHL the rate at which he takes minor penalties has been halved, though he isn’t drawing as many penalties as he did before playing with the Laval Rocket.

Maintaining solid numbers on a rebuilding team despite a confusing AHL assignment is certainly a feather in his cap. Xhekaj has shown he has the ability to meet any challenge, and he does so with aplomb.

And recently, he has taken on a whole new challenge, one that has stumped many Canadiens defencemen in the past: playing important minutes alongside veteran David Savard.

Against the Predators, Xhekaj was given the second most ice time at 5v5, finishing with an excellent share of the shots (69%) and expected goals (75%) in the process.

And here’s where things get even more interesting.

When paired with Xhekaj, Savard’s numbers have skyrocketed.

Finding Chemistry

Xhekaj is quick to credit Savard for his excellent play in recent weeks, a common theme for all young players trying to earn a permanent role in the NHL.

And if you watch Savard on the ice, you will quickly acknowledge that his communication skills are well above average, which is always important on a team full of young players with very little experience.

But I’d also like to point out that Xhekaj’s impact on Savard’s numbers has been jaw-dropping.

We’re not talking about slightly better underlying numbers. We’re talking about drastic improvements across the board.

To get a better idea, we can simply take a look at how Savard has played with his three most common defensive partners this season.

Of course, his usage has an impact. Playing on the second pairing is easier than playing on the top pairing, but even when we keep assignments in mind, the difference between playing with Xhekaj and Mike Matheson or Kaiden Guhle is astonishing in all three key metrics.

montreal canadiens xhekaj stats

As for Xhekaj, he produced reasonably good numbers alongside his most common defensive partners this year (Harris, Kovacevic). Most key metrics were hovering around 50 percent.

Brass Tacks

The reason I mention this is not to take all the credit away from Savard. Just as Xhekaj has positively influenced his results, playing with Savard has done wonders for Xhekaj’s numbers.

But the fact remains that prior to the new pairing, Xhekaj had managed to find chemistry alongside various other defencemen, whereas Savard’s results with other players were quite underwhelming.

Again, usage comes into play.

But usage isn’t enough to influence such an uptick in possession numbers.

We tend to treat Xhekaj and Harris as second-tier defencemen, at least when compared with someone like Guhle. But the fact remains that both these young players have outplayed their counterparts, and not just by a little.

While many try to figure out whether Xhekaj and Harris have a long-term place on the team, I’d like to suggest they should be considered as part of the core players. At least for now.

And when it comes to Xhekaj, it’s time to stop treating him as a project.

He is not a perfect player, far from it.

Few are.

But considering how well he’s played for the Montreal Canadiens since becoming the first defenceman in league history to go undrafted and jump directly from the CHL to an NHL roster, it’s time to put a little more respect on Xhekaj’s name.

Just as he suggested when he entered the league, he’s much more than just a deterrent when it comes to violent plays.

The numbers don’t lie.

Arber Xhekaj has quickly become one of the best players in the Canadiens lineup.

All Montreal Canadiens statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted. Via Natural Stat Trick.