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Arber Xhekaj, the mountain man of the Bulldogs

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SAINT-JEAN, New Brunswick | If Shea Weber is nicknamed “the mountain man” in the NHL, that nickname could likely apply to Arber Xhekaj in Canadian youth hockey.

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Well, the Montreal Canadiens prospect has a few more crusts to eat before hitting Weber’s 230lbs, but at 6’4 and 204lbs, the Hamilton Bulldogs guard has established himself as a real force on the track this season.

“He’s a man on ice,” Bulldogs manager Jay McKee said Monday morning, just hours into his team’s first match of the Memorial Cup tournament against the Saint John Sea Dogs. I think he is the player with the most impact in the entire OHL. He is impressive and has good individual skills. He can do anything on the track. He can avoid pressure thanks to his skating or take opponents out of the game thanks to his physique. We are lucky to have him here. ”

To say he is the player with the most impact in the entire OHL is a nice compliment when you consider that the league had several NHL picks in the first round, including his teammate and third overall pick. Ducks in 2021, Mason McTavish, or top scorer in Canada Wyatt Johnston, of the Windsor Spitfire.

PHYSICAL ADVANTAGE

At 21 – in his junior year of 20 – Xhekaj already has the physique of a man and you can understand the impact he has on the track, especially when he faces players aged 16, 17 or 18, who are still on track. . a growth spurt.

However, its impact goes beyond the physical benefit, says McKee.

“A lot of 20-year-old players play in the league against younger players, but it doesn’t have its physical impact. Sometimes I enjoy trying to push him around and he gives me a hard time, concedes to the coach, a former NHL 6’3 “195lb defender. […] He also has good hands and a good shot. He is not just a defender. ”

Certainly, however, certain advantages conferred on him by his structure will no longer exist, or will have less impact, once he is among the professionals, adds the coach.

“When Arber makes the leap to the pros, he’ll have to simplify his game a bit. He can do things right now that won’t work at the next level. For example, he will no longer be able to get rid of an opponent with one arm. He will also have to run the games faster. ”

READY FOR MORE

The past year has been a bit crazy for Xhekaj. Invited to Habs’ camp after missing an entire OHL season due to the pandemic, he forced the team’s hand, which made him sign an entry contract. He then started the season with the Kitchener Rangers, before being traded to Hamilton, his hometown, with whom he won the championship.

“It’s hard to put into words what last season was for me. I hope now that we will conclude this with a title [de la Coupe Memorial]. ”

Because his short-term goal remains the Canadian title with the Bulldogs. In the medium term, however, he also has great ambitions.

“I will keep the same mentality this summer during my training, but I will have to work twice as much because my goal is to play in the NHL next year. I am aware that I will probably need some time in the minors, but I will train with the aim of playing in the NHL.

Also, if his name has given you trouble while reading this text, know that Xhekaj is pronounced “Jack-aille”.

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