The Sheriff Makes Laval Rocket Debut

The Montreal Canadiens' embarrassment of riches on the blue line forced Arber Xhekaj down to the American Hockey League upon his return from injury.

Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens
Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Be it as a conditioning stint, or simply because Jayden Struble has been playing inspiring hockey. Regardless of that, the Canadiens are all business as usual. Xhekaj understands why he is in the position that he is, and appears ready to have a strong game against the Belleville Senators.

Xhekaj has played some great hockey down the stretch, but with players pushing from Laval to find their place with Montreal, the opening Struble needed presented itself. Now, with Struble playing inspired hockey in Montreal and Xhekaj needing to get back up to game speed, he will be able to do that with Laval. It could be taken as a punishment or a demotion, but simply put, it is a chance for Xhekaj to show where he is at in terms of being able to keep up to game speed.

Certainly, if Xhekaj plays a strong game, or even strings together a few strong performance, then it will force the Canadiens hand to make a decision. Ideally, you want Arber in Montreal, but the depth on the left side of the blue line has put a stick in the spokes of that idea. Unless Gustav Lindstrom or a lefty comes out of the lineup, it seems like the decision to be made is between Struble and Xhekaj.

Both are disruptive and aggressive in the defensive zone, and have good vision and mobility to help support their forwards in transition. Struble gets the edge in terms of skating, as he is a bit smaller and his edges are better than Xhekaj's, but with both of these guys in the Habs lineup, the opposition would have some big problems. The thing is, there would be one too many lefties in the defensive lineup - and Kaiden Guhle and Mike Matheson are essentially cemented into their roles.

So, I would have to think that in the next seven to 10 days, there may be a bigger deal in the works. A deal that could include a package of a defenseman, a goalie and perhaps a prospect or draft pick in exchange for some support at forward with the top of the lineup looking banged up due to injury.

Impressions Of Xhekaj's Laval Debut

The best way for Xhekaj to assert himself into the lineup and more so into the game, is by dropping his gloves or throwing a big hit to benefit his team. I'm not suggesting to pick a fight for the sake if fighting, but Arber has come a long way and he is aware of that. All of his professional hockey experience has come with the Canadiens, so he knows how to handle himself against pros.

Laval ran into a ton of penalty trouble, and defensively they weren’t close to their best. Xhekaj rushed the puck up the ice during a 4-on-4 sequence, trying to create some offence. It was nothing doing, but he was solid on the penalty kill clearing the zone, while stabilizing things with his poise. 

With the Rocket in the box for the majority of the first 25-plus minutes of the game, the offence was stalled. Xhekaj didn’t get any powerplay time, but the Rocket did have an opportunity to break the goose egg with just over 12 minutes in the middle frame. The Rocket were unable to score, and still trailed the Senators 3-0, in a rather one-sided affair.

Despite the score, Xhekaj played a solid game through the first two periods of the game. He made smart reads and activated to exit the puck out of his zone consistently. it’s abundantly clear that he isn’t rusty or out of game shape, and when the Canadiens call upon him, he will be game ready. 

While on the powerplay, Lucas Condotta negated the man advantage with a penalty. The theme of the game was consistent poor decisions. The Senators wasted no time and went up 4-0.

It seems obvious that the Rocket need some energy invigorated into the lineup. I’m not suggesting that Xhekaj should fight, but somebody is going to need to change the momentum. The power play hasn’t done it, but the Rocket got another chance.

Perhaps putting 72 on one of the units could throw a change-up at the Senators. Who knows, JF Houle disagrees. 4-0 Belleville with 20 minutes left to play.

It would appear that Xhekaj had a poor game for his standards. But Laval just looks out of sorts, no chemistry and is poor both offensively and defensively. It seems like there needs to be some moves made in Laval, otherwise they will continue their stay in the league’s basement. 

Xhekaj finished the night with two shots, and a negative plus/minus rating.