As is often the case in Habs-land, we get overly excited and quickly anoint players to be future stars. In the case of Arber Xhekaj, perhaps star is a bit of a stretch, but it felt just a few short months ago that many expected he would be a fixture on the Canadiens' defense for years to come.
Growing up (a Habs fan nuh duh) I was one of those fools who drank the Canadiens kool-and often, in large quantities. I fell for the media and fan repeated game of overhyping players. Kjell Dahlin comes to mind. Paul Di Pietro, Gilbert Dionne, Marcel Hossa, heck who remembers Matt D'Agostini or Nate the (not so) Great Beaulieu. All touted as future "vedettes" in this city, which has been starved for stars- in any sport- since the great years of les Canadiens (the 70s) or those of the Montreal Expos (early 80s).
Now again, to be fair, I don't think many saw the Sheriff as a future Cale Makar or even a Charlie McCavoy (we'd settle for a Radko Gudas at this point). But there were several who had crowned him as the league's most intimidating player (after a wrestling match with Ryan Reaves and the goal net), and as s potential top 4 pairing D on a team aspiring to contend in 2-3 years.
Fast forward to January 2024, and it's safe to say, Canadiens management at least, have significantly tempered those lofty expectations (for a player who was never drafted). Martin St-Louis, for one, doesn't seem to be the president of the Arber Xhekaj Fan Club.
And, admittedly, Arber himself, has acknowledged he needs to clean up his defensive reads and show some restraint in the physical part of his game.
But the real question is: in today's hockey do NHL teams really need enforcers? I mean we started the year, yet again, wrongly assuming teams were going to load up on tough guys within the Canadiens' division but fast forward 5 months into the season and have either of Ryan Reeves, Milan Lucic (granted for off-ice reasons, but would he have been in the lineup on a regular basis - allow me to doubt it), Bokondji Imama played much (or at all, in the case of the latter)? Does McDermid in Colorado get a lot of ice time? Nic Deslauriers has been a healthy scratch of late.
I mean there will always be room for a Trent Frederic, and Evander Kane, or other players who can drop the mitts but also play high-level hockey. But do you cut a smooth-skating, reliable defender like Jayden Struble, to make room for mistake-prone, Xhekaj, because, he happens to be a better pugilist?
I'm not suggesting that it's over for Arber, but if his ceiling is that of a decent 6th d-man, with limited offensive upside, and who has a hard time following the fast-pace of today's NHL, do you just keep him around, because potentially 5-6 times a year, a brawl (or dirty hit to a key player) could occur ? Can you not answer such incidents or hits with a wolfpack mentality?
As much as I like what the Xhekaj brings to the table, I am beginning to wonder, if 1) there is enough crime in today's hockey, to keep a sheriff around and 2) given the plethora of young, talented d-men (particularly LHD ones) coming up in the Canadiens' organization, do we not want to make room for a couple of them in the near future?
I believe Xhekaj's future will be determined a lot sooner than most think. I just hope for his sake, that he will not fall into the same category as the aforementioned "overhyped" Habs' players of the past.