Montreal Canadiens: Arber Xhekaj Rising, Justin Barron Stumbling - Could They Swap Places?

Winnipeg Jets v Montreal Canadiens
Winnipeg Jets v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Arber Xhekaj was sent down to Laval after returning from injury and Justin Barron has been a constant in the Habs lineup - but he has struggled recently.

Could it be nearing the time to send Barron down to Laval and call up Xhekaj? Now it will get tight on the blueline, and there may be just one right shot in the top six, but change is looming. At least I think you would be hard-pressed to think anything otherwise, as Barron is drowning.

Meanwhile, Xhekaj has fit like a glove with Laval and has ensured to focus on areas needing improvements. It was reported that Martin St. Louis wanted Xhekaj to sharpen his defensive zone tools. I would say he has done just that and the offence has translated from his responsible play. 

I’m not sure if it’s a confidence thing or what it is exactly, but Barron has looked like a different player over the last 10 games. He is quick to pucks, but his decision-making is so slow and predictable. Forecheckers challenge him and often come away with the puck.

On offence, and especially in transition his mental errors result in odd-man rushes and frequent turnovers. Barron has so much skill and talent, but if he needs more time to adapt, he should be sent down. The Bambi legs, boneheaded turnovers and bobbled pucks start to wear down a player and his confidence. 

On the opposite side, Xhekaj’s confidence was never tarnished, and if anything his performance - also Kasimir Kaskisuo’s first start with the Rocket - should cement his stance. Xhekaj had his first career AHL tilt, and the Sheriff also had his prints on the scoresheet. He finished the night with two assists, a five-minute fighting major and one shot on goal. 

With the Canadiens, he still hasn’t hit his offensive ceiling, but his defensive growth should not go unnoticed. Barron is certainly the better offensive player, but with too many whoopsies and uh-ohs, it’s clear he is struggling. I feel that Barron would benefit from playing in Laval and even working on different things with another offensive-minded defender - Logan Mailloux.

Xhekaj would add some more physicality to the blueline, which has been lacking. And the other night when Juraj Slafkovsky got hit in the head, rest assured the Sheriff would have gotten his retribution. With Guhle, Struble and Xhekaj on the left side, that is not a fun trio to face - and Xhekaj will answer the bell for questionable hits. 

This is meant as no insult to Barron and it feels like I’m fluffing Xhekaj’s feathers, but development and icing the best group is most important. I love Barron and if he hits his ceiling, the Canadiens will have a nice core piece. The same can be said about Xhekaj, he just stabilizes things on the third pair, and with improvements in his defensive game, he could find increased minutes on the penalty kill. 

The future of the team and the strength of the roster are of the utmost importance. If Xhekaj and Barron can iron out the kinks in their games, the Canadiens will be better for it. Both are big, strong and physical and have great mobility, with room to grow offensively. 

But for now, one is showing improvements while needing time to work on his game. Laval is full of players constantly learning and improving on the fly. It’s a great atmosphere for Barron to join in and do the same. 

Give us back Arber, and please take good care of Barron. Xhekaj had a goal against Syracuse today on the powerplay, marking his third point in his last two games. He has been the best defenseman for the Rocket, while still throwing first bombs. 

It’s time, Xhekaj is ready and Barron needs a change of pace to get his mojo back.