More than a tough guy, Canadiens rookie Xhekaj shows he belongs in NHL

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WINNIPEG — When Arber Xhekaj arrived at Canadiens training camp he was hoping he might be able to make the team.

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Playing on the power play definitely wasn’t on his mind.

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But that’s where Xhekaj found himself — on the second power-play unit — when the Canadiens lost 3-2 in overtime to the Winnipeg Jets Thursday night at the Canada Life Centre.

Xhekaj had 1:19 of power-play ice time among the 19:02 he logged during the game.

“I don’t think it’s that common for young guys like me to come out of junior and get on the second unit,” Xhekaj said after the game. “But they’re trying stuff early on and they want to see what I can do out there.

“I never played on the power play in junior until my last year,” he added.

Through the first 11 games this season, Xhekaj has continued to prove he belongs in the NHL despite not being drafted. He wasn’t even selected at the OHL draft before playing for the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs.

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Last season in the OHL — split between Kitchener and Hamilton — he had 12-22-34 totals and 138 penalty minutes in 51 games. During 18 playoff games with Hamilton, he had 6-10-16 totals and 50 penalty minutes as the Bulldogs won the OHL championship.

This season with the Canadiens, the 21-year-old defenceman has 1-2-3 totals in 11 games with a plus-1 differential and 25 penalty minutes while averaging 15:27 of ice time per game.

“I know his past in junior and stuff, he’s an offensive guy,” head coach Martin St. Louis said about Xhekaj after Thursday’s game. “We know that’s an option and you don’t know what you have until you try it. So I gave him an opportunity to do that. We didn’t get many (power-play chances) for him tonight. But it’s not something that we feel like we put him out of place. I think he’s played on the power play in junior and we’ll see if he’s a guy that can carry some minutes there.”

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