(Saint John) It’s easier on social media to find a collection of hits distributed by Arber Xhekaj than a montage of his goals, but his Hamilton Bulldogs manager Jay McKee insists that the defender who has signed a deal with the Montreal Canadiens last fall is more than just a defensive back.
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After all, Xhekaj has scored 12 goals and 22 assists in 51 regular season games with the Bulldogs, before adding six goals and 10 assists in 18 playoff games.
“He has good hands and a good shot. He’s not just a tough defender who will stay in the zone of him, ”McKee said earlier this week as the Bulldogs enter the Memorial Cup tournament.
“He’s a complete player,” he added. He is not a player who will only be physical to the next level. He is proficient in several aspects of the game.
McKee knows Xhekaj very well, who signed with the Kitchener Rangers after the Hamilton native was traded in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OHL) draft.
Xhekaj was also ignored in the NHL draft, so he showed up at the Canadiens camp last fall on an invitation. 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 at Costco for nine months to be able to afford the gym and training on ice. He thus found a way to progress despite adversity.
“It was difficult mentally not to be able to play the games. I was wondering why I was training, Xhekaj admitted. My goal was to get a contract during a camp. So I worked hard and didn’t give up. ”
Xhekaj admits he was a little overwhelmed by events during his first outing from Habs’ beginner camp. However, he seemed to gain confidence as the field progressed. Eventually he played three games on the rookie pitch, then participated in the big club’s preseason games against the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not only has his performance at the Canadiens field allowed him to achieve his goal of getting a contract with an NHL team, but he also believes his time with the team has allowed him to reach another level on the ice. .
“It’s going so fast and the players are so great, you have to make decisions faster,” Xhekaj said. He helped me at a youth level, because I know I have to move the puck faster, make faster plays. ”
Xhekaj’s progression into 2021-22 was such that McKee called his protege the “most impactful player” on ice through the OHL.
“He can do anything. He has the ability to skate to escape pressure, can be physical and separate the opponent from the puck, said McKee, who himself has 802 games of NHL experience. We were happy to acquire it, especially after having had the opportunity to manage it at Kitchener. ”
Xhekaj, 21, wasn’t afraid to say he was aiming for a position with the Canadiens’ defensive side this fall. However, he is aware that the competition will be fierce due to the presence of high hopes in this position with the Habs.
McKee said Xhekaj will need to make changes to his game to establish himself in the NHL. In particular, he will have to simplify his game of him, because he will no longer have so much advantage over his opponents on a physical level.
“At the next level, he won’t be able to hold off a rival with one arm like he’s here,” McKee said. He will have to make faster plays, until he gets used to the speed and physicality of the professional level. ”
For his part, Xhekaj plans to double down on training, as he did while chewing in winter 2020-21.