What to expect from Florian Xhekaj in debut professional season?

Florian Xhekaj showed in his final season of junior that he was more than just a physical specimen. How will his game translate to the American Hockey League?
Hamilton Bulldogs v Windsor Spitfires
Hamilton Bulldogs v Windsor Spitfires / Dennis Pajot/GettyImages

When the Montreal Canadiens drafted over-ager Florian Xhekaj, some were taken aback, questioning what the club saw in the rugged forward.

Selected in the fourth round as a 19-year-old, Xhekaj draft-plus-one season would come in the Ontario Hockey League with the Brantford Bulldogs. Kent Hughes knew that Xhekaj, much like older brother Arber, loved the physical side of the game. If he was throwing his body around and chucking the knuckles, then he was playing in his element.

But he wasn't drafted just to take penalties and harm the team, he was selected because there was a belief that he could develop into a fine power forward. Maybe he won't be a top-six player, but you need 12 forwards and each one is equally important to get a win. Scoring is important, but so is keeping the puck out of your net and wearing down the opposition, especially during the postseason.

Xhekaj showed that he is much more than just a meathead, showing a knack for obstructing the opposing goaltender's view with his large frame. But he didn't just provide a screen, he was also pretty adept with his hand-eye coordination - tipping and deflecting pucks. Xhekaj went from scoring 25 points through 68 games during the 2022-23 campaign (his rookie season) to a point-per-game clip, with 65 points through 63 games.

OHL statistics aren't by any means indicative of a translation to the professional game, but a jump from 13 goals to 34 the next season in five fewer games is impressive. Xhekaj's first full professional season will be an interesting one, he is going to be able to keep up with the physical part of the game, but how he will defend and keep up with the play is what interests me. I expect that his older brother will be leaned on heavily for advice and little pointers - a pretty good mentor; someone who skipped the AHL completely cracking the Habs out of his first training camp.

I don't think that Xhekaj will pop off offensively in year one; I may stand corrected, but I expect that his focus will be on establishing himself as a professional hockey player. This means he will focus on his 200-foot game and making the high percentage plays, rather than overthinking and trying to overcomplicate things.