ST. JEAN, N.B. | If Shea Weber is nicknamed “the mountain man” in the NHL, this nickname could probably apply to Arber Xhekaj in Canadian junior hockey.
Well, the Canadian's prospect still has a few crusts to eat before reaching Weber's 230 lbs, but at 6  ;ft 4 and 204 lb, the Hamilton Bulldogs guard has established himself as a real force on the ice this season.
“He's a man on the ice,” Bulldogs head coach Jay McKee said Monday morning. I think he's the most impactful player in the whole OHL. He is imposing and has good individual skills. He can do anything on the rink. He can avoid pressure thanks to his skating or take opponents out of the game thanks to his physique. We are lucky to have him here. »
To say he's the player with the most impact in the entire OHL is quite a compliment when you consider that the league had several first-round picks in the NHL, including his teammate and third overall pick by the Ducks in 2021, Mason McTavish, or Canada's leading scorer, Wyatt Johnston, of the Windsor Spitfires.
Arber Xhekaj had an assist on Monday night in the Hamilton Bulldogs' loss to the St. Jean at the Memorial Cup tournament.
At 21 – playing in his 20-year-old junior year – Xhekaj already has the physique of a man and you can understand the impact he has on the rink, especially when facing 16-year-olds. , 17 or 18-year-olds who are still in a growth spurt.
However, its impact goes beyond the physical benefit, assures McKee.
“Many 20-year-old players play in the league against younger players, but don't have its physical impact. I sometimes have fun trying to push him around and he gives me a hard time, admits the head coach, a 6 3 in, 195 lb former NHL defenseman. […] He also has good hands and a good throw. He's not just a defensive back. ”
However, some of the advantages conferred on him by his frame will certainly no longer, or less, once he becomes a professional, adds the coach.
“When Arber makes the jump to the pros, he will have to simplify his game a bit. He can do things right now that won't work on the next level. For example, he will no longer be able to get rid of an opponent with only one arm. It should also run games faster. »
READY FOR THE NEXT
The past year has been a bit crazy for Xhekaj. Invited to the Habs camp after missing a full OHL season due to the pandemic, he forced the team's hand, which made him sign an entry contract. He then started the season with the Kitchener Rangers before being traded to Hamilton, his hometown, with whom he won the championship.
“It's hard to describe in words what the last season was for me. I hope now that we will conclude this with a title [of the Memorial Cup]. »
Because his short-term objective remains the Canadian title. In the medium term, however, he also has big ambitions.
“I will keep the same mentality this summer during my training, but I will have to work twice as hard because my goal is to play games in the NHL next year. I am aware that I will probably need some time in the minors, but I will train with the goal of playing in the NHL. »
Besides, if his name gave you trouble throughout the reading of this text, know that Xhekaj is pronounced “Jack-aille”.
< h3>Cataracts neglected, but confident
Even though they are the champions of their league, the Shawinigan Cataractes are hardly anyone's favorites to win the Memorial Cup. And that suits them perfectly.
The Cats open their competition Tuesday night against the Western champions, the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“We seem to be labeled as the underdogs from the start and we live well with that, very well even, assured the captain of the formation, Mavrik Bourque. We only played one game with our full roster and that was before Christmas. Since the start of the playoffs, we have nothing to be ashamed of having released three of the five best teams in the league. Yes, we are still neglected by some, but internally, we believe in our chances and in our group of players. »
For head coach Daniel Renaud either, there are no complexes to have.
“We are neglected, according to what we read everywhere. We are aware of our ranking in the regular season, but we are also aware of the fact that we have faced a lot of adversity and injuries. I don't think you have to be jealous or intimidated by anyone, anyone. Anyway, I've mentioned it so many times that I want us to focus on how we play. When we respect our style of play, that's where we are effective.
THE PARTY IS OVER
After the euphoria of the final victory over the Charlottetown Islanders and the holding of a parade of champions in the streets of Shawinigan, the Cataractes must now come back to earth, since they will face the biggest tests of their season.
“We gave our guys three days to experience the championship. It's so rare that it happens and we ask our players to live each situation intensely. For three days, they behaved well and enjoyed the moment. Wednesday morning, when we started training again, the switch was on and our level of competition was excellent. I have no doubt that we will be ready,” added Renaud.