Canadiens’ Arber Xhekaj jumping ahead in race to earn a job on blue line

The Hockey Central panel discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs losing 2 more defenceman to injury in a winning effort over the Montreal Canadiens, evaluate Matt Murray's performance in his pre-season opener & also break down rookie Juraj Slafkovsky's game.

It’s hard to imagine a 6-foot-4, 238-pound man being in anyone’s shadow, but that’s where Arber Xhekaj stood upon his arrival with the Canadiens at the beginning of this month—positioned behind Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Justin Barron in the race to open spots on the team’s blue line.

Well, the big man changed that quickly. He took his first step towards the forefront at the rookie tournament in Buffalo, where he was a one-man wrecking crew against the Ottawa Senators, and he’s taken several more since main camp opened over a week ago.

On Thursday, at Scotiabank Arena, just an hour east of where he grew up, in front of friends and family members in attendance, Xhekaj continued to assert himself in the competition. The 21-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native was noticeable on all 19 shifts he took in a 3-0 loss to the Maple Leafs.

Xhekaj had six shot attempts, threw six hits, was involved in the play in all three zones and caught Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis’ attention for all the right reasons.

“I thought Arber had a great game,” St. Louis said. “I thought he played hard, made some poised plays, defended well, was physical at times…He played a very mature game.”

By his own admission, it wasn’t a perfect one for Xhekaj.

He was on the ice for Nick Robertson’s game-opening goal in the first period and was serving a holding penalty when Denis Malgin made it 2-0 in the second.

But Xhekaj was able to put both things behind him quickly and exhibit the game that has moved him closer to pole position for a spot on Montreal’s blue line.

It was unimaginable he’d be there when we first heard his name a year ago.

The Canadiens invited the undrafted lefty to their 2021 camp and quickly signed him to an entry-level contract after he impressed right out of the gate.

The player Xhekaj looks up to most recommended to then-general manager Marc Bergevin that they do it.

“I remember when he first came in, I talked to Berge and (then-assistant GM Scott Mellanby) and was like, ‘Hey, this kid’s (expletive) good, and he’s tough, and you should really think about keeping him around,’” said former Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot when we reached him by phone earlier this week. “They really liked him and signed him at the end of the camp.”

Chiarot had inside knowledge on Xhekaj prior to both of them showing up at Canadiens camp last season and knew he would make an impression. He saw a player who could play mean, but also one who could exhibit unheralded skill and skate at a very high level.

Chiarot said watching him play was a bit like looking in the mirror.

“He’s just a good, tough kid from Hamilton,” Chiarot said. “He went to the same high school I went to, carries himself the same way I do, is big like me and skates and plays a complete game. It’s rare to find defencemen these days that play that way. Every young defenceman who comes in has the same kind of look—great skaters and skills—and the get-in-your-face, mean defencemen who can do that as well are few and far between these days.

“For Montreal to have a guy like Arber, they found a good one.”

The Canadiens know.

General manager Kent Hughes wasn’t fully aware before he was hired to replace Bergevin in January, but he saw what Xhekaj was able to do in leading the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs to a championship before leading them to within one win of the Memorial Cup.

The kid was physically dominant and posted six goals and 16 points in 18 playoff games before taking the summer to prepare for his return to the Canadiens, and Hughes took notice.

On Wednesday, the GM was on hand to watch Xhekaj take another step out of the shadows and had to have liked what he saw.

Xhekaj’s teammates certainly did.

“I love playing with Arber,” said Harris, who lined up to Xhekaj’s right side for the game. “He’s very easy to play with…”

What makes him so?

“His intelligence,” said Harris. “His ability to make plays—hockey is about, at the end of the day, the ability to make plays and Arber, with his skating and his size and his hockey intelligence, makes it pretty easy out there for his partner.”

Xhekaj doing it with seemingly unshakeable confidence gives him an edge in this competition—and a leg up as we get closer to the beginning of the regular season.

With 6-foot-5, 221-pound defenceman Joel Edmundson sidelined indefinitely with a back injury, the door opened for Xhekaj.

That he stepped through it all but guaranteed he’ll play NHL games this season.

It wasn’t as given as it was for Guhle (20), Barron (20) and Harris (22) before rookie camp started, but it seems more so now. And the idea that Xhekaj could be playing meaningful games with this team before some of those others do suddenly isn’t as farfetched as it might have been a few weeks ago.

“I think he’s pretty impressive,” said Canadiens defenceman Chris Wideman. “He’s really impressive. He’s calm, and if he gets you into a confined space, he’ll just swallow you up. I’ve been there in practice, and it’s not fun. Happy to have him on our side.

“It’s impressive the way he carries himself. He’s very calm, very mild-mannered, and he can make little plays coming out of the zone that most guys with that type of toughness can’t do. And He’s mature. The way he carries himself, he doesn’t get flustered. He doesn’t look like he’s over his head, and it’s impressive for a young guy. He’s very sure of what he’s doing out there and it’s really impressive to see.”

Chiarot sees a player who’s “a sure-fire NHLer who will play a long time.”

That Xhekaj sees that in himself, as well—that he’s as confident without coming off as cocky—is a good sign.

He said he felt ready to play at this level a year ago, and he’s acting like a player who knows his time is coming soon.

As for his performance on Wednesday, Xhekaj said he felt good about it.

“I felt confident out there, made some good plays,” he added. “Obviously, they scored on me once and I took a penalty and they scored, and I’d like to take that out of my game.

“But all in all, I thought I played pretty well tonight.”

Xhekaj was far from the shadows under the bright lights at Scotiabank Arena.

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