Canadiens’ Arber Xhekaj takes another step in journey back to being himself

MONTREAL — After what he called Arber Xhekaj’s most complete game of the season, Montreal Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis analyzed how that came to be.

“I think he built his game tonight from the start,” St. Louis said following a 3-2 loss Wednesday to the Buffalo Sabres. “You never know what your first shift’s going to be like, you never know what it’s going to bring you. If you’re alert from the start, you’re able to build your game, and I think that’s what he did tonight.”

St. Louis is not wrong when it comes to this one game, and we’ll get back to that, but Xhekaj’s journey to a complete performance began long before his first shift of the game Wednesday, as good as it was.

No, it began with a shoulder injury in mid-November and a demotion that sent his head reeling.

Back in January, after he had time to digest what was happening, Xhekaj sat down after a practice with the Laval Rocket and was able to start seeing what the real intention was for the Canadiens. And it was something he was told before being sent down that made a difference for him.

He couldn’t see the demotion as too much of a setback when management clearly communicated to him that they saw him as a big part of the Canadiens’ future and that this time in the AHL was an important part of that coming to fruition.

“Yeah, when I got sent down they kind of told me that,” Xhekaj said at the time. “It’s not that I was playing bad or anything, just with what the situation is, they think it will benefit me and that I am a big part of what they’re trying to build in the future.

“If that’s the truth, then I can definitely look at it in a good way.”

That took time for him to realize, but Saturday morning before facing the Washington Capitals, Xhekaj was seeing real progress in his game and reflected on what he learned in Laval and how it was helping him. And it wasn’t just the increased minutes or the puck touches. A big part of it was being a leader and how that leadership mentoring a similar young defenceman who is also important to the organization, Logan Mailloux, showed Xhekaj the progress he had made.

“It wasn’t just Laval,” Xhekaj said Saturday. “I think as the season was going on, my first 16 or 17 games in the NHL (this season), I think I was working on those things, and as it went on before I got hurt, I was getting better. Obviously when you get hurt, they wanted me to get back into it and get my confidence back, so it definitely helped playing a lot of minutes, playing in every situation and just being a leader down there definitely helped.

“Also, it helped when I was teaching some of the guys, too. I was teaching Mailloux kind of what I learned and stuff that I know, so I think when you teach someone, that’s when you realize you know what you’re talking about.”

That is an important part of building confidence, feeling like you know what you’re talking about, but for Xhekaj it doesn’t end there. He needed to marry what got him to the NHL — his physicality, his offensive potential, his swagger — with the fundamental elements of defending in the NHL that the Canadiens wanted him to incorporate into his game.

“I think I was just so focused on the defensive side I stopped to think about what makes me who I am,” Xhekaj said Saturday morning. “I’ve got to bring all those pieces together, and it’s tough. But I think I’m learning and getting better at it.

“I think when they want me to make those improvements, they don’t want me to stop being the player that I am. Like, they don’t want to take that away from me. I think that was just me thinking about certain things too much.”

What helped Xhekaj come to this realization was doing something that is a fundamental part of who he is last Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks, when he fought Ross Johnston, all 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds of him.

“Yeah for sure,” Xhekaj said Saturday morning. “I haven’t fought any heavyweights for a long time this year, I think that was the first one, or second one now. It’s been since game one (against Ryan Reaves) that I’ve really gone with any big guy like that, so it felt good. It was definitely good to get that one under my belt.”

Later that evening against the Capitals, Xhekaj scored on a slap shot that was clocked at 102.2 miles per hour. That was also an element of what helped him get back to who he is because his shot has long been something the Canadiens saw as a plus asset in his game.

And the benefit of scoring like that Saturday was seen Wednesday when Xhekaj scored on another cannon off a great one-handed pass from Joshua Roy.

“I think (I’m taking) more slap shots for sure,” Xhekaj said Wednesday night. “After that one (Saturday), I didn’t know I could shoot that hard.”

This brings us back to that first shift against the Sabres that St. Louis was talking about, and it is appropriate because it incorporates so many elements of what the Canadiens want to see from Xhekaj.

The shift begins with Xhekaj assertively carrying the puck out of the zone off a defensive zone faceoff and getting the puck to Joel Armia for a zone entry. As the puck leaves the Buffalo zone, Xhekaj directs Armia to cover his backside as he gaps up on Dylan Cozens, forcing him to get rid of the puck. And then, when Cozens gets it back along the end boards, Xhekaj pins him along the boards and aggressively finishes his check. And then, finally, after Sam Montembeault covers up and Jordan Greenway skates by him, Xhekaj gives him a little shot.

Basically, everything the Canadiens want to see from Xhekaj was there on that one sequence.

“I thought it was probably the most complete game he’s played with all the assets that he has,” St. Louis said. “He’s a physical player, and you saw that tonight. He actually has some good offensive instinct, and you saw that, his touches were really good offensively. The hardest part for a defenceman in this league, a young guy, is to defend, like how to read the rush, and I feel he’s getting better at these things, he’s getting consistency in these things.”

Later in the game, Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt hit Jake Evans into the boards from behind, a play that could have been penalized but wasn’t. Xhekaj was on the ice, but instead of losing his mind, he responded in a way that was forceful but was also not penalized, which is the key element.

“That’s not a guy who’s going to drop the gloves, so I had a chance to get him back there, so I did,” Xhekaj said. “You hate to see a player go down and I always stick up for my guys.”

That is part of what makes the Canadiens think Xhekaj is a big part of their future, as he was told when he was sent down to Laval.

After the game, while St. Louis was not shy in praising Xhekaj’s game, he took issue with a question that referred to Xhekaj being in his top-four for this game, even though he was third among Canadiens defencemen in ice time. He also took issue with Xhekaj being referred to as The Sheriff, which was his nickname, but apparently isn’t anymore.

“You guys call him The Sheriff,” he said. “I don’t think any of us call him The Sheriff.”

The Canadiens are molding Xhekaj into being a big part of their future, and that process is not over. There is still work to do, and what is most important is that Xhekaj realizes it and accepts it.

“You’ve just got to trust the process,” he said Wednesday. “It’s hard to know what that means, but they knew what they were doing with me.

“I’m just going to keep trusting it and it’s going to work out.”

And that is a realization that began long before Xhekaj’s first shift Wednesday night.

(Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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