Billy Bertrand column: Arber Xhekaj should play in the NHL

SPECIAL COLLABORATION

This Saturday marked the one-month anniversary, if you can call it that, of Arber Xhekaj’s first game in the American League. After a rocky start, Xhekaj only confirmed what we already knew; he should be in the NHL. His nine points in 11 games tie him with Logan Mailloux for the lead among Rockets defensemen and only eight defensemen trail him in the entire AHL during that span.

Arber Xhekaj painting

And yes, there are also his many fights and his shocking body checks. Obviously this is a key aspect of Xhekaj’s game, but limiting him to that would be disrespectful to him. Yes, his tough play is a big part of his success, but what makes him unique is that he is, first and foremost, a good defenseman on both ends of the ice. Offensively, he doesn’t hesitate to shoot when the opportunity presents itself and he is an asset in transition while offering solid defensive play.

Obviously he would prefer to continue his development in the NHL, but if we look at the positive, this stay in Laval offers him an opportunity that he wouldn’t have in Montreal, at least not in the near future: a role in the first defense. pair.

Xhekaj lives on the ice more than ever in Laval. He has played more than 19:30 per game on average since he joined the Rocket, which places him second in ice time among the club’s defensemen. That’s a workload he would never see in Montreal behind Mike Matheson and Kaiden Guhle. In fact, he has surpassed 19:30 only four times in 68 games with CH, and two of those games required extra time. He plays important roles on both sides of the special teams in Laval and faces top opposing teams more regularly than he did when he was on the third pairing in Montreal, where he had by far the easiest competition of any CH defenseman this season. season.

The problem for Xhekaj is that someone went out of his way to steal his chair while he was out of the game: Jayden Struble. The Northeastern University alum has impressed since he was called up for his solid play. He limits his mistakes and offers constant play to Martin St-Louis, who gives him more and more opportunities. In his first 15 games, he averaged 13:10. That average has skyrocketed to 18:09 over the last six games, culminating with 20:28 against the New York Rangers last Saturday. He brings a physical touch reminiscent of Xhekaj. In fact, Xhekaj and Struble rank first and second among CH defensemen this season in hits per 60 minutes.

I’m sure Martin St-Louis would love to be able to play everyone, but unfortunately that’s not possible, and the Struble/Xhekaj debate is just a small part of a larger problem in Montreal.

Like the city itself, the Canadian city has a traffic jam on its blue line that will only get worse in the coming months and years. Montreal already has five left-handed defensemen who deserve a regular spot in the lineup: Mike Matheson, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Struble and Xhekaj. Lane Hutson is expected to make his debut later this year, as he finishes his college season and Adam Engstrom continues to impress in Sweden, with 14 points in 31 games for Rögle in the SHL.

And all that without taking into account right defenders like David Savard, Justin Barron, Jonathan Kovacevic, Gustav Lindstrom, David Reinbacher and Logan Mailloux. Or CH’s 22* options in the next two drafts that will no doubt add some other defensive hopes. Or any player who could come out of nowhere like Xhekaj.

There are 13 defensemen who played for CH this season or who are seen as prospects with a very good chance of playing in the NHL in the coming seasons. Having too many options is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.

No matter how much you like the Habs’ various defensemen, the reality is that the blue line only has room for six starters and one or two reserves, not a dozen defensemen. Kent Hughes has proven that he is very creative in the trading market. He will have to find a way to use the numerous pieces of him to improve the team. Whether it’s another Dach/Romanov trade or a bigger deal for a true offensive star or to move up in the draft, something is going to have to happen sooner or later. It will be a difficult choice that will undoubtedly divide fans, but it is simply inevitable.

Which defensemen do you think the Canadiens should trade? Let us know in the comments.

*Depending on millions of conditions on the Flames’ first-round pick, which could carry over to 2026.

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