Arber Xhekaj, much more than a defensive defender

SAINT-JEAN, NB: It’s easier to find a compilation of Arber Xhekaj’s hit songs on social media than a montage of his goals, but his Hamilton Bulldogs coach, Jay Mackie, insists the defender, who signed with the Montreal Canadiens last fall, is more than just Defensive back.

After all, Xhekaj scored 12 goals and 22 assists in 51 regular season games with the Bulldogs, before adding six goals and 10 assists in 18 playoffs.

“He’s in good hands and a good shot. He’s not just a solid defensive man who will stay in his area,” McKee said earlier this week as the Bulldogs entered the Anniversary Cup.

“He is a complete player,” he added. He’s not a player who just takes physical to the next level. He is skilled in many aspects of the game.”

Mackie is all too familiar with Xhekaj, who signed him with Kitchener Rangers after the Hamilton native was overtaken in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft.

Xhekaj was also ignored in the NHL draft, so he appeared at the Canadians camp last fall thanks to an invite. All this after a lost year, as the OHL canceled its 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The story is already known, but Xhekaj worked nine months at Costco so he could afford the exercise and ice. And so he found a way to progress despite adversity.

“It was mentally difficult not being able to play matches. I wondered why I was training,” Xhekaj admitted. My goal was to get a contract during camp. So I worked hard and didn’t give up.”

Xhekaj admits that he was a little overwhelmed with events on his first outing from Habs Novice Camp. However, he seems to have gained confidence as the camp progressed. He finally played three games during rookie camp, then took part in the big club’s pre-season games against the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

His performances at the Canadians camp not only allowed him to achieve his goal of securing a contract with the NHL team, but he also believes that his time with the team allowed him to reach another level on the ice.

“It’s going so fast and the players are so big, you have to make decisions faster,” Xhekaj said. It helped me at a beginner level, because I know I have to move the disc faster, and play faster. »

Xhekaj’s lead in 2021-22 was of such a kind that McKee described him as the “most influential player” on ice across OHL.

“He can do anything. He has the ability to skate to escape the pressure, he can be physical and separate the opponent from the disc,” said Mackey, who has 802 NHL game experience. We were happy to have him, especially after we had the opportunity to manage him at Kitchener. »

Xhekaj, 21, was not afraid to say he was aiming for a position in the Canadian Defense Brigade this fall. However, he understands that competition will be fierce because there are many optimists in the position with Habs.

Mackie said Xhekaj will need to make adjustments to his game to establish himself in the NHL. In particular, he will have to simplify his game, because he will not have much superiority over his opponents on a physical level.

“At the next level, he won’t be able to fend off an opponent with one arm like he is here,” Mackie said. He will have to do the gameplay faster, until he gets used to the speed and physical reality of the professional level. »

For his part, Xhekaj plans to work extra hard in training, as was the case when he was chomping in winter 2020-2021.

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