Laval has a new Sheriff in town, and he’s been kicking ass and taking names.
Is Arber Xhekaj too good for the AHL? Probably. Does that mean he should be called up to sit in the stands in Montreal? Absolutely not.
Through 12 AHL games, Xhekaj is averaging 19:38 per game while playing on the top power-play and penalty-killing units with Logan Mailloux. The two are quickly developing chemistry and don’t be surprised if they end up playing as a tandem at the NHL level down the road. In their 12 games together, Mailloux and Xhekaj each have ten points, so they appear to be complementing each other well. Mailloux started the season with 10 points in his first 20 games so his pace has picked up since being teamed with the Sheriff.
It has been suggested that Xhekaj is”too good” to play games at the AHL level, and while he is an NHL-calibre defenceman who stands out like a sore thumb, it is important to consider that the two best defencemen in team history Doug Harvey and Larry Robinson) spent time in the AHL early in their careers. If Robinson can play 127 AHL games, then the undrafted Xhekaj can play there as well until a spot is freed up on the NHL roster. He won’t regress as a player finding his confidence and learning to be more disciplined while leading a young team.
Xhekaj is playing well and helping the Rocket get back in the playoff race. Given a choice between Xhekaj sitting in the stands and Laval missing the playoffs or Xhekaj logging 20 minutes a game and Laval making the playoffs, Kent Hughes will have no issue in choosing the latter.
The Rocket are 8-3-1 with Xhekaj in the lineup after starting the season 5-11-4. They’ll be fortified this spring by the likes of Lane Hutson, David Reinbacher, Adam Engstrom, Luke Tuch, Oliver Kapanen, Filip Mesar and Owen Beck, so it is in the best interest of the organization to get Laval into the playoff as they could potentially go on a long playoff run. Such a scenario would benefit all of the young prospects in addition to keeping hockey interest high well into the spring.
Here are some highlights from Xhekaj’s back-to-back games versus Syracuse on Dec. 29-30 and scouted all of his shifts in Laval’s 4-3 shootout win versus Utica on January 5:
Xhekaj’s AHL skill level is above average, and there is a definite correlation between Laval’s vast improvement and his arrival. There is no issue with his pivoting or quickness in the AHL, especially skating backward. His decision-making has been sound and he’s poised with the puck. He has also been given more time and space to utilize his point shot and it’s paying off with some impressive goals. Xhekaj is sealing off the wall effectively, utilizing his mobility, reach, size and angles to thwart rushes to the outside.
In his first dozen games with Montreal, Xhekaj took 11 minor penalties, and that was unacceptable. the Canadiens have the worst penalty-killing in the league, and if they wanted to stay in contention, the unnecessary penalties had to be curbed. What will be encouraging to Marty St. Louis and his staff more than anything is that Xhekaj got the message regarding costly penalties. Xhekaj has only put the Rocket in a shorthanded situation twice in a dozen games.
If he can continue taking one minor penalty for every 60+ minutes played, it won’t be long before the club is comfortable in having him back in the NHL lineup. Right now – it’s simply a numbers game. Kaiden Guhle, Mike Matheson and Jayden Struble are all ahead of him on the left side.
The Canadiens have been hit hard down the middle this season, losing Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak and Alex Newhook with long-term injuries. Mitchell Stephens has filled in admirably and Sean Monahan has been moved back to center but there is a need for more NHL forward depth, especially at center.
Hughes may not wait until the deadline to move out a defenceman and Jake Allen if he hopes to stay in the playoff race. The Canadiens sit five points out of a playoff spot with 12 teams in front of them. If they reel off a couple of more wins versus Philly and San Jose the gap will tighten and Hughes will have some tough decisions to make. What’s working in his favour is that he is dealing from a position of strength. He doesn’t have to be a buyer or a seller.
Hughes can be patient and wait for the right offer to come along with Xhekaj waiting in the wings. It’s possible that Xhekaj could be one of the defencemen moved but one gets the feeling that the club has long-term plans for Xhekaj. He brings a size/toughness element that is lacking, and if he keeps playing with the same discipline and effectiveness, Hughes won’t hesitate to move a blueliner or two.