Stu Cowan: Canadiens’ Arber Xhekaj still a work in progress

The defenseman says his time with the AHL’s Laval Rocket helped him gain confidence and that spending a week off at home with his family in Hamilton was a nice break.

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While many of his Canadiens teammates spent the bye week on the schedule last week down south on a sunny beach, Arber Xhekaj returned home to Hamilton.

This has been a challenging season for the 23-year-old defender.

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Seventeen games into his second NHL season, Xhekaj suffered an upper body injury on November 16 that would sideline him for more than two weeks. Once he was healthy, the Canadiens sent him to the Laval Rocket of the AHL on December 4. Xhekaj would play 17 games with the Rocket (with a total of 3-8-11 and 34 penalty minutes) before being called up again. He played two games with the Canadiens before being ruled out for the final game before the bye week: a 3-2 overtime loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on January 27.

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“It was good,” Xhekaj said after Thursday’s practice in Brossard when asked about the bye week. “I went home. I already had enough free time when I got hurt. I think it was better for me to go somewhere where I could use this time wisely and go see my family and spend some time at home.”

Were you jealous when you saw photos on social media of your peers sitting on a beach?

“If you want to have fun, have fun,” Xhekaj said. “It’s a long season. But for me, I was just looking for a time where I could get my body back to where I want it to be and stay fresh.”

Xhekaj went to the gym regularly in Hamilton and also had the opportunity to watch his younger brother, Florian, play a game for the Brantford Bulldogs. The Bulldogs beat the visiting Sudbury Wolves 5-3 with Xhekaj in attendance and Florian was named the second star after scoring a goal and also getting into a fight.

The Canadiens selected Florian, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound left winger, in the fourth round (101st overall) of last year’s NHL Draft. In 45 games this season with the Bulldogs, he has 19-18-37 totals and 58 penalty minutes.

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“He’s playing very well,” Xhekaj said of his brother. “I really like what he is doing. It was really good to see. I haven’t seen him play in many years. Big improvements, man. …Now he’s about my height. I haven’t seen him in a while. He continues to grow on me. This summer the battles are going to be pretty good between the two of us.”

Xhekaj was also able to spend time with his parents during the bye week. She comes from humble beginnings and her parents, Simona and Jack, immigrated to Canada from the Czech Republic and Albania, respectively, in the 1990s. The couple met in Hamilton. Simona works in the Costco garage in Hamilton changing tires, while Jack is a welder for National Steel Car and builds trains.

“She always sends me quotes and things she reads on Instagram,” Xhekaj said of her mother. “She just wants us to have fun and stay healthy.”

Are there any quotes that stand out?

“She sends a lot,” Xhekaj said with a smile. “Every day I read two or three things about a mother and her son or something like that. It’s nice to read it…it’s an everyday thing for me now to look forward to seeing them.”

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Xhekaj said this season has been difficult for him both physically and mentally. He added that the stint in Laval was good for his confidence and also gave him time to think.

“Just taking the time to reflect and be a professional,” he said. “Show up every day and really focus on everything you’re doing. Arrive 30 minutes early, get to the gym early, get on the ice first, take each exercise seriously as if it were a game. I think it really helped me in that aspect. It was definitely good to play 20+ minutes every game and be the go-to type of guy, playing a lot of minutes. Playing with (Logan) Mailloux too. Just to get the touches back after being away for a while.

“Maybe it’s a learning curve because I’ve never experienced the AHL before,” added Xhekaj, who was never selected in the NHL Draft and made the jump directly from junior to the Canadiens. “Maybe I took (the NHL) for granted a little bit. Although he thought not, maybe he did. “You really never know.”

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Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis said Xhekaj needs to work on his consistency, from shift to shift and game to game. He also needs to work on defending him, using an active stick, maintaining his physical playing style.

Simply put, Xhekaj remains a work in progress.

“We like the potential ceiling we see for Arber,” St. Louis said. “I think it’s about continuing to raise the floor, and the floor for me is just consistency.

“It’s not an easy position to play for a young player in this league,” the coach added. “Most young players look for consistency.”

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