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Physical play: Josh Anderson has just had his best season in Montreal
Credit: Capture d'écran / Screenshot

Early May: we’re already trying to figure out what the Habs’ lineup will look like when they play their first game in October. Unfortunately, the team will look a lot like the one that finished the 2023-24 season(plus Kirby Dach, who will be healthy). We’ll have to wait a little longer to see a team that can truly compete with the best in the league.

For a number of reasons, many people are wondering whether Arber Xhekaj will be back at his best, and if so, whether he’ll be as physical as he was before his two shoulder operations. I have to admit that, on the face of it, seeing a guy who hits and throws the gloves on a regular basis undergo surgery on both shoulders is enough to worry the team’s fan base.

Except that, if the past is any indication – and it often is – Arber Xhekaj should be able to throw down the gloves as often as he used to. Maybe even more so…

Xhekaj had surgery on his right shoulder – the one he hits with – a year ago and fought seven fights in 44 games in 2023-24.

The previous season, when he was making a name for himself as a pugilist, he threw down the gloves nine times in 51 games.

In short, he fought in 16% of his matches last season, compared with 17.6% the season before. Just one more fight in 2023-24 would have given him a higher rate of fights per game than in 2022-23. Bet that with a left shoulder that wasn’t constantly dislocating, Xhekaj would have fought that one more fight.

Having his right shoulder operated on clearly didn’t “slow down ” the Montreal Sheriff.

It’s safe to assume that, with two solid new shoulders, Xhekaj won’t be shy about throwing down the gloves next year.

Butbeware! He won’t have to accept every invitation and fight every night. It’s up to him to choose his fights, his opponents and the right timing.

Yes, there are a lot of defenders currently in Montreal and in the prospect pipeline…

Yes, many of them are left-handed…

Yes, Arber Xhekaj might sometimes feel that he’s not part of the team’s long-term plans

And yes, Arber Xhekaj’s contract expires on July 1…

But since Xhekaj is different, useful and popular – and will be eligible for restricted autonomy without the possibility of arbitration – he will be back in Montreal in September. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be entitled to a bridge contract, or whether he’ll have to settle for signing his qualifying offer($813,750 NHL, two-pronged). I don’t believe in a long-term contract for him, personally… and I don’t think he’ll have to settle for simply signing his qualifying offer either.

Josh Anderson hits and fights harder than before
Just before being traded to the Habs, Josh Anderson also went under the knife to repair a shoulder that was constantly giving out.

And like Arber Xhekaj, Anderson had earned a reputation as a guy who throws down the gloves to get respect.

Did he fight less after his operation? Not a bit!

In the three seasons leading up to his surgery, Anderson had thrown down the gloves twice, twice and once.

Afterwards? Two, three, one and four times!

So having surgery hasn’t slowed his pace… even though he’s just had his most brawling season since 2016-17 (five).

According to HockeyFight, Josh Anderson has won (hands down) three of his four fights in 2023-24.

Note that 2023-24 also saw him hand out the most body checks (169) since becoming a member of the Canadiens.

Badmouths will say he had no choice, given his poor performance on the ice… but in the end, one fact remains: Anderson offered the Habs a quality physical game in 2023-24. If not good with the puck…

The problem, if there is one, is that when Martin St-Louis talks about being good without the puck, he’s not referring to shoulder shots and punches!

In short, if shoulder surgery hasn’t dampened Anderson’s spirits (he’ll be 30 next season)…

And that it hasn’t slowed down Arber Xhekaj in 2023-24 either, I don’t see how anyone can think that Xhekaj will fight any less in 2024-25.

On the contrary! I think he’ll fight more than five times, because he knows that’s the card he has to play if he wants to stay in the NHL (and possibly play with his brother in Montreal).

Prediction: Arber Xhekaj will fight at least eight times next season, much to the delight of those who whine about partisan hockey fights.

In gusto

– Only one point in five playoff games for Pierre-Luc Dubois. And four games in a row without a point to end the series. It’s a (Hollywood) catastrophe. [NHL]

– How much is Mathieu Choinière worth? And should we give it to him? #WhatPodcast

– Wilfried Nancy and his Crew: in the CONCACAF Champions League final .

– Where is Jonathan Drouin?

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