Montreal Canadiens prospect Arber Xhekaj was one of the top storylines of training camp.
Canadiens training camp was a lengthy affair, and it can start to feel like it is really dragging on after a week or so. Fortunately, there were a couple of cool unexpected developments that kept our attention.
One of those was the terrific play of Arber Xhekaj.
Xhekaj was not even drafted by the Canadiens, or anyone at all, he was an invitee to the team’s development camp and he really stood out. This earned him a call to the main training camp where he continued to stand out. At 6’4″ and 225 pounds, standing out isn’t difficult, but Xhekaj was able to do it with his on ice performance and not just his size.
The 20 year old left shooting defenceman got off to a great start for the Kitchener Rangers after signing an entry-level contract with the Canadiens and then being sent back for one final year of Junior.
He had six points in his first eight games, but was tossed from that eighth game for a viscous slew foot.
Xhekaj was rightfully suspended for five games for that takedown. He served that suspension and was back in action on the weekend for the Rangers. He made up for the lost time by getting on the scoresheet early and often.
In Saturday’s game against the Flint Firebirds, Xhekaj hammered him a one-timer from the blue line. It happens right off a Faceoff and just after Xhekaj (#8) and his defence partner Jacob Leblanc decided at the last second to switch sides. The puck eventually comes back to Leblanc and Xhekaj gets into a position to be ready to blast a one timer. Leblanc feeds the puck across and Xhekaj fires it just inside the far post for his second of the season.
Xhekaj’s second point of the game came late in the first period. He stepped out of the penalty box and picked up a puck that was cleared. It is difficult to see in the video that barely caught up with the play, but Xhekaj gets the puck across to his teammate Mike Petizian who buries it to five the Rangers a 3-1 lead. They would go on to win 4-2.
On Sunday, the Rangers were facing the Saginaw Spirit and fell behind 1-0 after the first. Not to worry, Xhekaj tied the game in the second period with another blast from the point. This time, the puck was moved back to Xhekaj on the left point and he just quickly fired a slap shot on net. The goaltender appears surprised by the velocity on the quick, relaxed windup and the game is tied.
Xhekaj added an assist on Sunday as well, propelling the Rangers to a 2-1 win as he set up his defence partner for the game winner. Again, the video on this assist isn’t ideal, but you can tell Xhekaj gets the puck at the left point and hesitates just long enough to draw a defender close to him. He then fires a quick pass across the zone to Leblanc, his defence partner, who walks into the slot and snipes the game’s winning goal.
Four points in two games for a big, physical defender is a great way to return to the lineup. The suspension was just a selfish play at the end of a game and hopefully Xhekaj learns to rein in that temper a little bit.
His team went just 1-4-0 in his absence and then won both games in his return, improving their record to 8-7-0. That means they are 7-3-0 with Xhekaj and 1-4-0 without him. He also has ten points in the ten games he has played this season, proving to be a great find by the Canadiens who invited him to training camp and got him signed to a contract.