By JAG – Arber Xhekaj has yet to skate in the NHL but, already, he has quite a story to tell. It is a story about Arber stacking shelves at Costco when he received an invite to the Habs’ rookie camp last year. Lookout Cinderella, you have competition!
The short and quick of it is that he had a good rookie camp. And then, apparently, he also had what the Bergevin management team thought was a very good main camp, so much so, in fact, that he went home with an NHL contract in his pocket! Is that Hollywood stuff or what?
Fast forward a full OHL season in which, despite being traded halfway, he managed to post a career best in points and was a mainstay, or a Clydesdale if you prefer, on the Hamilton blue line. He helped his team win the OHL title and move to the Memorial Cup tournament. The Cinderella story continued until …. they lost, BUMMER!
To compound the disappointment, I watched he and Jan Mysak during the Memorial Cup games and he seemed stiff on his skates and didn’t display the good skating that scouts had mentioned in diverse reports. I still thought he was a good catch for his physicality but the Cinderella story kind of fizzled out.
Then the 2022 rookie camp happened. I thought I would see much the same from him but nooooh! He was mobile, fluid and, dare I say it, agile for such a big man! Whether he was injured or just dead tired at the Memorial Cup, or he really benefited from the Habs support team in his summer stay in Montreal – apparently, he’s been in town training for quite a while – I don’t know? What I know is that I saw a much better version of the AX-Man at the rookie camp than what I saw of him before. And voila, just like that, Cinderella is back!
By now, you might have guessed that I have a soft spot for underdogs. Generally, I find their stories to be more interesting. And Arber Xhekaj certainly has a good one going!
Looking back at the rookie camp, he was definitely the most physically dominating presence on the ice, even more so than Juraj who was dominating in his challenges but not as physically punishing. Arber owned the space around him, period! The only thing keeping him from being NHL ready right now is that he will have to control his physicality better. He over commits to hits too often, it’s a weakness in the NHL and it will be exploited. Also, shying away from fighting doesn’t seem to be his forte, it will not serve him well in the NHL. However, they are very coachable issues and he looked very good as a hockey player. So far so good! We still have a good story.
And then, he had THE fight. It just ruined it for some people. Cinderella became Godzilla in the blink of a black eye! Bummer! I’ll stay away from the need for, or value of fighting in hockey debate for now. I’ll just say this. Life is what it is, not what you’d like it to be and certainly not what it ought to be. It is what it is and you have to deal with it! So, as long as other teams have enforcers on their rosters, you’d better have a valid counter puncher on your side or your best players will get hounded and hurt! It’s just the nature of the beast. Bullies have to be reined in! In a way, it’s quite similar to the Cold War doctrine of deterrence through nuclear annihilation except that in hockey, it often ends up with the enforcers duking it out and bearing the brunt of the blows. More of a ritual than a real war when you think of it.
The problem for Arber Xhekaj is that he is already being typecast in this enforcer role, or at least he has the rep of a tough guy …. And it can be a trap, a career killer!
He’s in a big pickle! His physicality, in large parts – no pun intended – is what has brought him where he is now. But he can’t stop being who he is! He’s a tough Albanian kid! Heck, he probably has a couple of aunts that are tougher than him. Everything about him screams tough guy …. with a good heart of course. But Albanian or not, the game of hockey is dangerous enough as it is without adding the risk of concussions from fighting to the long list of hockey’s day to day injuries. Hmmm …. this movie just went from Cinderella to Catch-22! What is he to do?
You would think that his story hasn’t been written yet, that he has a say in his future, that he can learn to play clean and not fight at all. But you’d be wrong! The next chapter of this Cinderella story has already been written …. And experienced, many times!
It’s an old story and here’s how it goes. Enforcers and tough guys know each other. It’s a community of sorts, it has its own code and rules. In any given league, a pecking order has been already established and fights are controlled and limited. Unless someone goes overboard and rocks the boat, hockey gets played without fisticuffs, most of the time.
But there is expected upheaval in this peculiar arrangement. Every year brings a new crop of big strapping young men, wannabe enforcers and tough guys, seeking to make a name for themselves and get that elusive first contract. Everybody wants a piece of the NHL. And they also have to make a living. They will compete against each other and challenge the established strong men when needed. At least until a new order is established and balance is restored. It’s very Darwinian if you ask me!
So, even if you don’t want to fight, some guy will challenge you just to show off and you’ll have no choice to fight if you want to keep your job. This is how his fight started in Buffalo. He was challenged right at the face-off, no choice of his, BUMMER!
If you fall into this trap often enough, fighting being what it is, you’ll break fingers and hands and you’ll lose your touch with the puck. You’ll get concussed, you may get a broken jaw once in a while or torn ligaments, countless fat lips, bloody noses and black eyes, not to mention suspensions and such. Pretty soon, you’re on pain killer meds, you’ve become a non-factor for your team and some younger, cheaper guy is breathing down your neck. That is how you kill a career! That is the BIG trap!
As I said before, the story has been written and experienced many times before by young men just like him. A few of them have found a way to get out of this trap. They still had to fight, at times, but they were no longer identified as mere enforcers, they just became tough hockey players you don’t mess with.
I think that Arber Xhekaj has what it takes to be one of them. I heard him being likened to Ben Chiarot, I agree and I think it would be a waste for Arber not to have this type of career.
First, he needs to control his physicality and temper. He can’t be the one being baited into taking a penalty, most coaches frown on that you know. But he is abrasive enough to make others take the bait and draw a penalty, most coaches smile on that! Also, he doesn’t need to drop the gloves or Xhekaj (it’s a verb now) some poor schlep into the boards as much as he does now. He can just pick his spots. Shea Weber would be a good example to follow. He just has to be patient, he’s a Clydesdale in the making …. if he wants to be! And if that be the case, by the end of his career he will have thousands of hits, blocked countless shots and, hopefully, his name on some shiny silver hardware along with his Habs’ teammates.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. He will need help and support of course. Control can be learned through good mentorship, experience and maturity. He should get plenty of that from Martin St-Louis, Stéphane Robidas, Jean-François Houle and company.
And there are factors that should limit fighting activities even as the camp starts. First, the NHL is slowly, gradually, getting rid of fighting. The game is also evolving in unforeseen ways. Cap space issues have squeezed out many enforcers to be replaced by cheap, predictable defensive specialists. And when minimum wage is $750K a year, just big and mean doesn’t cut it anymore, you have to be able to play the game at speed to make it in the NHL, that also cut into the number of enforcers.
Surprisingly, he can use his reputation as an advantage. Anybody that is acquainted with the OHL already knows that you don’t mess with the AX-Man. You’ll get Xhekaj-ed, and it WILL hurt! The same can be said for the Senators rookies that witnessed him in action …. and the thousands of hockey fans and other tough guys who watched the video clip of the fight. People are starting to know that ‘’You don’t mess with the Xhekaj!’’
I spoke about deterrence before, Arber Xhekaj is the ultimate deterrent. And the Canadiens need someone like him. I don’t know where he learned to fight but he learned well. A colleague from another site called him the assassin, it was meant as a compliment but I think he’s wrong. Arber fights like a technician. I’ve watched a few of his fights and he’s controlled and efficient, he gauges, assesses, maybe takes a couple of half-blocked blows, probably to get pumped a little, and then he pulls the trigger …. once or twice and it’s over. Arber Xhekaj is one of the best fighters I’ve seen in hockey and I’ve watched hockey for 40 years. He may get challenged in the beginning of the season but regardless if it is in the AHL or the NHL, ‘’You don’t mess with the Xhekaj!’’ will become the word on the street sooner rather than later.
Don’t be naïve and think that I am praising his fighter’s skills, I’m not! Becoming the best hockey player he can be should be his first priority, period. That being said, he will get challenged. Or grabbed, or jumped, and he will have no choice but to defend himself. As I said, it is what it is.
Soooo, the faster he makes people understand that ‘’You don’t mess with the Xhekaj!’’, the faster he can get down to the business of becoming a mainstay on the Habs’ blue line. Hopefully, he’ll only have to fight a few times and it’ll be convincing enough for tough guys and enforcers alike to let him play hockey and leave the Xhekaj-ed episodes for someone else. In the mean time, I feel sorry for the poor saps that will stand in his way. They’ll get Xhekaj-ed!
And hopefully, that’s how this Cinderella story ends!
Quick notes on the AX-Man:
- I heard that he played right D at times in Hamilton. If so, it would be interesting to give it a look. If he could play on the 3rd pair with Harris or Guhle, it would be one less headache for Mr. Hughes
- I like the AX-Man as a nickname, matching his initials with his on-ice persona is kind of cool
- I hope the Habs players don’t start to call him Cindie (Cinderella)
- My apologies to all his aunts, it was only a writer’s trope to accentuate my point, please don’t hit me!
Keep your stick on the ice, the puck is coming.
Thanks for reading,