Hickey on hockey: Human wrecking ball Xhekaj a surprise for Canadiens

Rookie was considered a prime candidate for demotion to Laval when Mike Matheson returns in December, but his stock has risen steadily.

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The Canadiens’ defence received a boost with the much anticipated return of Joel Edmundson. He logged 21:07 of ice time over a team-high 27 shifts and contributed four blocked shots in a 3-2 overtime time loss in Winnipeg Thursday.

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It was a solid performance for a blue-liner who missed training camp for a second consecutive year and last played on April 29.

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But the big story on defence was the play of Edmundson’s defence partner, rookie Arber Xhekaj. When you have two left-handed shots, the veteran is usually tasked with playing the right side. But head coach Martin St. Louis has a reputation for thinking outside the box and he lined Xhekaj up on the “wrong” side.

While there were one or two times the human wrecking ball was out of position, Xhekaj played a career-high 19:02 and even saw action on the power play. He moved the puck with confidence and established his physical bona fides with 10 hits.

When the season began, there was speculation over which defencemen would go to Laval for seasoning when Edmundson and Mike Matheson were healthy. Xhekaj, who wasn’t drafted in junior or the NHL, was considered a prime candidate, but his stock has risen steadily. With Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Johnathan Kovacevic and Xhekaj playing well, St. Louis will face a tough decision when Matheson returns in mid-December.

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Xhekaj wasn’t the only player to take a step forward in Winnipeg. Backup goaltender Sam Montembeault made 33 saves to salvage a point. The 26-year-old, who played through a wrist injury last season, has a 2-1-1 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. Those are the best numbers of his career and that gives St. Louis confidence that he can give No. 1 goaltender Jake Allen the rest he requires to be at the top of his game.

No hope for Quebec: The For Sale sign went up on the Ottawa Senators this week and the only surprise is that there hasn’t been a flood of suggestions that the troubled franchise would be better off moving to Quebec City with its rabid fan base and the NHL-ready Videotron Centre.

That might be because there are potential owners who believe there is a future for this team in the nation’s capital despite five years of declining attendance. An Ottawa-area developer has expressed interest and People magazine said Vancouver-born actor Ryan Reynolds is in the mix, although he might have trouble making the down payment. The asking price is likely to be in the $700-million range and Reynolds’ net worth from the Deadpool movies and peddling Aviation American Gin is $150 million.

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But the main reason there has been no groundswell about a move to Quebec is that the city’s chances of landing an NHL team are the same as Shane Wright’s chances of winning the Calder Trophy.

While Quebec government officials check in with the NHL brass on a regular basis to inquire about Quebec’s chances of returning to the NHL, the reality is that Quebec won’t get a franchise as long as Pierre Karl Péladeau is the prospective owner.

The NHL owners in the rest of Canada view Péladeau as a separatist who wants to break up Canada — a not unreasonable assumption because Péladeau was once the leader of the Parti Québécois. They pass those concerns on to their brethren in the United States.

The other Canadian owner — Montreal’s Geoff Molson — is in a delicate position. He and his partners do business in the province and can’t disparage any efforts to revive a Quebec City franchise. But, while Molson may wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days and the modern-day Battle of Quebec, does anyone believe that the Canadiens would welcome the idea of sharing the market for $385 reverse retro jerseys?

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I’m surprised the NHL Players’ Association hasn’t entered the debate. The players are entitled to 50 per cent of hockey-related revenue and a Quebec franchise would produce more revenue than a team in Ottawa, Buffalo or New Jersey, as well as Arizona, where the Coyotes are playing in a 5,000-seat college arena while awaiting approval for construction of a new facility to be built on the site of a toxic garbage dump.

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