Xhekaj fighting to remain with Canadiens as Matheson nears return

Montreal Canadiens' duo Brendan Gallagher and Arber Xhekaj discuss the red-hot New Jersey Devils' start to the season compared to their own as they look to put an end to their nine-game win streak.

BROSSARD, Que. — An instant between Mike Matheson and Arber Xhekaj at Monday’s Montreal Canadiens practice was, at the very least, ironic.

Matheson, in a non-contact jersey, bumped Xhekaj right after Xhekaj expressly avoided hitting Matheson because he was wearing a non-contact jersey.

All the Canadiens got a kick out of it in the moment, and the two of them laughed about it in the team’s locker room later.

It’s unlikely any of them spared a thought for the symbolism of it, though.

Matheson’s willingness to engage physically with the team’s toughest player — after six weeks of rehabbing his abdominal strain — is a sign he’s getting closer to shedding that non-contact jersey for a regular one, and the next bump he gives Xhekaj could prove a lot more painful for the kid than the one he hit him with in Monday’s practice.

You don’t want to look too far ahead, because Matheson, who was traded to the Canadiens from the Pittsburgh Penguins over the summer to become their top defenceman, isn’t prepared to return to Montreal’s lineup yet and an injury to another defenceman before he does would make deciphering who gets sent to the minors to make room for him on the roster practically impossible. But assuming everyone remains healthy up until Matheson’s activation, Xhekaj is in the crosshairs.

He knows it.

When we asked the 21-year-old if he’s thought about how Matheson’s eventual return to the lineup might threaten his own place on the team, he admitted that, naturally, he has.

Not that Xhekaj’s been bogged down by it.

“I don’t worry about that too much, I control what I control,” he said. “I can’t control what decisions they make, but I know I can control my work ethic and the way I play. I just have to keep it up and I think it’ll be OK.”

It just might be, especially if the Canadiens feel sending Xhekaj down — even if it’s to play big minutes with the AHL’s Laval Rocket — will negatively affect a confidence within him that’s steadily grown since the season started.

It’s a confidence Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis appreciates.

“He just plays the game,” St. Louis said. “You never play a perfect game, and, like any other young defencemen, Jacko will make some mistakes sometimes. But he does way more good things than bad things.

“He’s gaining confidence, he feels good out there, he’s starting to figure out what he is.”

That’s confirmed with the eye test, but also reflected in the data.

At 5-on-5, Xhekaj leads all Canadiens defencemen in goals (two), shots (25), scoring chances (15) and rush attempts (four).

That he’s done this, in addition to filling his toughness quotient by taking more than double the penalties and throwing more than double the amount of hits as the next Canadiens defenceman on the list, reinforces the value he’s bringing to the blue line.

But the team isn’t overflowing with options to re-integrate Matheson, and that makes the decision coming a delicate one.

This is the type of decision the Canadiens knew they would be grappling with at one point, or several points, this season. They made development top priority and they have to tread carefully to ensure the confidence of a given player they’re developing isn’t negatively impacted when making such decisions.

Some might suggest navigating this one and preserving Xhekaj’s confidence is easy, and that waiving Chris Wideman is the solution, with the 32-year-old already relegated to healthy-scratch status and his development not a concern for the organization.

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But Wideman was signed knowing he could go long stints on the sidelines. That’s something he understands and accepts and something the Canadiens planned for. They haven’t planned for a young, budding defenceman like Xhekaj to be sitting out of games instead of playing them.

If Wideman is waived and sent to Laval, that’s the situation they would be faced with to get Matheson back into their lineup.

Sitting 20-year-old Kaiden Guhle, who’s been stapled to David Savard on the team’s top defence pair since the start of the training camp, is not an option. Ditto for 22-year-old Jordan Harris, who has been arguably Montreal’s steadiest defenceman since the season began.

And Harris’ partner, Johnathan Kovacevic, has (by the numbers) been the team’s most efficient one since coming over via waivers from the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 8.

Unless the Canadiens want to waive and demote Wideman and rotate Kovacevic, Harris and Xhekaj in and out of their lineup — a move that could affect the confidence of all four players — Xhekaj remains the most likely to be sent down to make room for Matheson.

That the defenceman, who averages the least time on ice per game on the Canadiens, also appears the most likely to benefit from an increased role in Laval makes him that much more likely to be the odd man out.

As Xhekaj said, that’s not within his control.

He has an opportunity to continue playing with the Canadiens when they host the red-hot New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, an opportunity to continue anchoring the second unit of the power play and to continue to bring the unique blend of skills that has quickly made him one of Montreal’s most popular players.

Maybe Xhekaj takes another step forward and makes the decision that much harder for the Canadiens. Or maybe someone gets hurt and frees up the space for him to remain.

But if nothing changes, Matheson is nearing a return and could be bumping Xhekaj once again in short order.

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