Arber Xhekaj's Evolution Into A Top Four Defender

Carolina Hurricanes v Montreal Canadiens
Carolina Hurricanes v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Former Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin saw something special when he signed undrafted free agent Arber Xhekaj.

He was a tough guy in the Ontario Hockey League, who showed signs that there was a little more than meets the eye. In his final season of junior hockey, Xhekaj was the most penalized player; given his physical edge that isn't much of a surprise. But his statistics were quite impressive, especially the postseason ones.

Xhekaj's squad, formerly the Hamilton Bulldogs, now residing in Brantford, were the OHL playoff champions. The bruising defenseman nearly matched his 17 points in 33 regular season games, with 16 points through 18 postseason games. His breakout performance during his second taste of junior postseason play couldn't have come at a better time.

He made the Canadiens straight out of training camp in 2022-23 and asserted himself as a hard-punching maniac. It ended up being the undoing of his rookie season, sending him to the injured reserve after a fight with Edmonton Oilers defender Vincent Desharnais. A lot has changed since then, primarily his decision-making.

It's less about proving that he can still chuck knuckles with the best the NHL has to offer. He did more than enough to solidify that last year. This year, it's been about using his physical gifts to help the team.

A 17-game stint with the Laval Rocket upon his return from injury seemed to do exactly what Martin St. Louis envisioned. Xhekaj showed plenty of offensive skills that could still be derived from his game at the NHL level. But his confidence with the puck on his stick; primarily leading breakouts and supporting his defence partner grew quite a bit.

Since returning to the Canadiens, he has been a staple on the Canadiens' second defence pairing with David Savard. The veteran has been a steady, calming presence who has been a mentor for Xhekaj, but also given him a bit of confidence to join the rush. Xhekaj has been playing his best hockey and the offence hasn't exploded, but he has been a more efficient defender.

On a non-playoff team, which isn't exactly a stout defensive squad, Xhekaj's been a positive presence. His plus-minus differential sits at an even six, and his focus on defending and transitioning the puck up the ice has been huge for his development. It's easy to forget that he is just 23 years old, and this is only his second season.

Xhekaj took a big step in his defensive play this season, but in the AHL he showed that there is more offense to be unlocked. Perhaps next year he will show a little more of that, and when all is said and done, end up being a very good third-pair defenseman with the Habs, with top-four upside.