Stu's Slapshots: Is Arber 'The Sheriff' Xhekaj back with Canadiens?

While it doesn’t seem like Habs head coach Martin St. Louis likes that nickname, he has to like the way big defenceman is playing now.

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It looks like “The Sheriff” is back with the Canadiens.

But it doesn’t seem like head coach Martin St. Louis is a fan of that nickname for Arber Xhekaj.

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Xhekaj played what was probably his best game in the NHL on Wednesday night in a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Bell Centre. He logged 18:52 of ice time, scored a goal, had four shots, four hits and had a physical presence throughout the game without taking any penalties.

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It seemed like the type of game the Canadiens wanted Xhekaj to learn to play when they sent him down to the AHL’s Laval Rocket this season for 17 games, during which the 23-year-old defenceman posted 3-8-11 totals and 34 penalty minutes.

During his postgame news conference Wednesday, I asked St. Louis if it was “sort of like The Sheriff being back.”

“I don’t know … you guys call him The Sheriff,” St. Louis said. “I don’t think any of us call him The Sheriff. We just know what he can do.”

When Cole Caufield was on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast last month, former NHL player Ryan Whitney asked him what “Wi-Fi” — another nickname for Xhekaj — was like in the locker room.

“We call him The Sheriff,” Caufield said. “He’s like he is on the ice … kind of the man … thinks he’s the man. He just comes in like there’s no scare factor for him. I mean, what are you going to say to a guy who will just kill you?

“He’s a good guy … he means well,” Caufield added. “Loves the guys. He’s a really good kid. The guy’s the funniest guy you’ll ever meet. Joking with everybody, chirping everybody, just so loud, obnoxious. Mullet (haircut), sideburns … it’s crazy. The guy’s hands are the size of a house.”

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One of the reasons the Canadiens sent Xhekaj to Laval could be management thought The Sheriff badge was getting too shiny too quickly, including an advertising campaign for “The Sheriff Burger” at La Chambre Microbrasserie Sportive in Terrebonne. During a promotional event for the new burger, Xhekaj noted The Sheriff nickname went back to his junior days with the Kitchener Rangers.

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“It kind of switched up a bit here when I made it to the NHL,” Xhekaj told reporters when The Sheriff burger was launched in December. “But it’s definitely a nickname I liked. I think (Wi-Fi) is good; the people love it. But when people are calling me Mr. Wi-Fi and they don’t know my name, that’s a bit tough. But if the fans like it, I like it.”

While St. Louis might not like The Sheriff nickname, he definitely liked the way Xhekaj played against the Sabres. The next night, Xhekaj logged a career-high 21:23 in a 4-1 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh with one hit and one penalty for tripping.

“It was probably his most complete game he’s played with all the assets that he has,” St. Louis said about Xhekaj after Wednesday’s game against the Sabres. “He’s a physical player. You saw that tonight. He actually has some good offensive instincts and you saw that. His touches were really good offensively. The hardest part for a defenceman in this league — a young guy — is to defend. Like, how to read the rush? And I feel like he’s getting better at these things, he’s finding more consistency at these things. He still plays into his strengths. Tonight, we expected the consistency on the defensive side of things and he’s given us that. Tonight is one of those games that we know he’s capable of. It’s not an easy league. It’s hard to repeat that all the time. For young players, it’s finding consistency and we’re working on that with him.

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“I want my players to play with swagger and swagger is confidence,” St. Louis added. “It’s not cockiness, which is totally different.”

After Wednesday’s game, I asked Xhekaj if he felt like The Sheriff was back in town.

“I don’t know if I necessarily have to carry that,” he said. “But I just got to bring what makes me me, right? I think that part of the game’s big for me, so I got to bring it every night.”

Xhekaj can become a restricted free agent this summer.

Matheson as a forward?

When Mike Matheson was a 15-year-old in his first season with the midget Triple-A Lac St. Louis Lions on Montreal’s West Island, his coach used him as both a defenceman and a forward.

“I remember thinking he can play both positions and where are you going to find a forward who can skate like him?” former Lions coach Jon Goyens told me this week when I interviewed him for a column on Matheson. “He’d score short-handed goals for us as a forward because we would line up for a D-zone faceoff — and even at five-on-five we’d do it — and they didn’t know if he was going out as a forward or a D. We’d have a simple play, win the draw and flip it out to the neutral zone and he would win these races and score wraparound goals and the other team was like: ‘We thought he was a defenceman.’”

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Heading into Saturday’s game against the Devils in New Jersey (2 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM), Matheson has 8-34-42 totals in 57 games to rank 10th in the NHL in scoring among defencemen. He is averaging 25:23 of ice time, which ranks sixth in the NHL.

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Nick Suzuki wasn’t surprised when I told him about Matheson playing forward in midget.

“He’s one of the best skaters in the league,” the Canadiens captain said. “The way he can carve up the ice through traffic is pretty impressive. I think he has played some forward in the NHL, too. He can do it all out there.”

Matheson has already set a career high in points this season at age 29 in his second season with the Canadiens.

“For me, the biggest thing with Matty is his risk management,” St. Louis said this week when asked about the growth in Matheson’s game. “Every good offensive player in this league, they’re always going to have a little risk in their game. But to me, it’s the calculated risk. What’s on the other side of the risk that you’re taking? I feel he’s grown in that department. I think it’s very important. You can’t just take risks all the time. It’s got to be calculated and I think he’s evolved.”

That F-you attitude

Goyens said one of the things that impressed him most about Matheson as a midget player was he had “a lot of F-you in his game — like a lot!” when it came to his compete level.

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Goyens added Matheson’s compete level in games and practices rubbed off on his Lions teammates, including fellow future NHLers Jonathan Drouin and Anthony Duclair. In Matheson’s second season with Lac St. Louis as a 16-year-old he was team captain and the Lions won the provincial championship, and then earned a bronze medal at the Telus Cup national championship.

St. Louis said that F-you attitude is something most of the best players in the NHL have in common.

“The top players in this league that are very skilled usually have that,” St. Louis said.

“You definitely need that compete … that F-you attitude that you’re saying,” St. Louis added. “It’s part of it. It’s a battle, it’s an internal war trying to get ice time. It’s an external war against the other team. You have to fight for what’s yours or what you think is yours. You don’t win many battles without the right attitude.”

It’s that attitude that allowed Brendan Gallagher to make it to the NHL and become a 30-goal scorer as a 5-foot-9 winger after being selected by the Canadiens in the fifth round (147th overall) of the 2010 draft.

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Gallagher smiled when I mentioned the F-you attitude to him after practice Tuesday.

“My junior coach always said that,” Gallagher said about Don Hay, who coached him with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. “You couldn’t play without that F-you attitude. Maybe it’s a generational thing … you don’t hear that so much anymore. But it’s something I can resonate to.”

Gallagher remains the Giants’ all-time leading scorer with 136-144-280 totals in 244 WHL games. Age and the abuse and injuries his body has suffered are catching up to Gallagher in his 12th NHL season. In 52 games, the 31-year-old has 8-8-16 totals and is a team-worst minus-24. Gallagher has three more seasons remaining on his contract with a US$6.5 million salary-cap hit.

“You’re always trying to improve your game and develop it,” Gallagher said after practice Tuesday. “When you’re going through a stretch where maybe things aren’t going as well, I think you got to get back to what you’ve always done well and how you’ve always had success and try to simplify it. For me, that’s pretty simple. Get around the net and I think for the next couple of games here that will probably be my focus is get into those areas, get engaged in the game, be competing. Slowly, but surely, you build that confidence back up and you get back to feeling good about yourself.”

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A familiar face

Kent Hughes knew exactly what he was getting when he claimed centre Colin White off waivers from the Penguins on Thursday.

Before becoming GM of the Canadiens, Hughes was White’s agent — just like he was for Matheson and Alex Newhook.

The 27-year-old White was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the first round (21st overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. That’s the year the Canadiens selected defenceman Noah Juulsen with the 26th overall pick. White was held pointless in 11 games with Pittsburgh this season and made his Canadiens debut against the Penguins on Thursday night. He had no points and was plus-1 in 11:11 of ice time while playing on the fourth line with Tanner Pearson and Jesse Ylönen.

In 304 career games, the 6-foot-1, 194-pound White — who is from Boston — has 44-69-113 totals.

White was one of nine former first-round draft picks in the Canadiens’ lineup against the Penguins, along with Matheson (23rd overall by Florida in 2012), Newhook (16th overall by Colorado in 2019), Suzuki (13th overall by Vegas in 2017), Juraj Slafkovsky (first overall by Montreal in 2022), Cole Caufield (15th overall by Montreal in 2019), Joel Armia (16th overall by Buffalo in 2011), Pearson (30th overall by Los Angeles in 2012) and Kaiden Guhle (16th overall by Montreal in 2020).

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Baby Cole memories

Caufield was only 2 when he started to play hockey on the same team as his brother Brock, who is two years older.

“He played his first game — he’s going to kill me for saying this — in a diaper,” Caufield’s mother, Kelly, recalled when I spoke with her last summer for a column after her youngest son signed his eight-year, US$62.8-million contract. “That gave him a lot more padding if he fell, which was good. After the game, he was so tired that he went in his car seat and fell asleep. He has loved every minute of playing hockey from the first time he got on the ice.”

Cole and Brock were teammates for two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. Brock, a right-winger, played five years at Wisconsin before joining the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers this season. He has 9-16-25 totals in 49 games.

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A very long slump

There have been some long goal-scoring slumps by Canadiens forwards this season, but none longer than the one Ylönen is on now.

Ylönen scored two goals in a 6-5 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 16 at the Bell Centre — giving him three on the season — and he hasn’t scored again since. The 24-year-old’s goal-less streak has now reached 35 games.

St. Louis has been working with Ylönen to improve the details of his game away from the puck. He is averaging 10:13 of ice time per game.

“It’s just awareness inside our structure,” St. Louis said when asked about his work with Ylönen. “To me, it’s playing the game on both sides. It’s not dying with the puck offensively. It’s doing your job defensively. Those are the details. It’s not necessarily scoring the goals, setting up the plays. He’s really good at that. But that happens — what — five per cent of the time he’s on the ice? I’m looking at the 95.”

Some solid advice

Goyens spent one season as an assistant coach with the Lions and 11 years as head coach before moving on to the QMJHL as a head coach with the Baie-Comeau Drakkar and then last season with the Cape Breton Eagles. He led the Eagles to the playoffs for the first time in three years before losing in the first round.

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Goyens and the Eagles mutually agreed to part ways last summer and now he’s working as an analyst on TSN 690 Radio for Canadiens games.

Among the players Goyens coached with the Lac St. Louis midget team who went on to play in the NHL are Matheson, Drouin, Duclair, Alex Biega, Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Joe Veleno, Louis Leblanc and Devon Levi.

Goyens has some great advice for any young player with dreams of making it to the NHL.

“Even in midget Triple-A, I would tell the players often — very often — that: ‘Yes, I’m the coach. Yes, we have a coaching staff. Yes, we do all the skills work and this and that. But we’re not in charge of your development. You’re in charge of your development,’” Goyens said.

“And they’d all look at me cockeyed,” he added. “I’d say: ‘You’re in charge of your development. The work you put in, the willingness to be a sponge, the willingness to be coached, the willingness to compete beyond what you’re normally used to competing. All those type of things. The little extra video work that you do away from the rink, all of that stuff stacked on top of each other is the key to your development.’

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“Mikey (Matheson) was at the forefront of the players that took advantage of all that kind of access.”

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Road to Recovery — Part 1

Kirby Dach has been sitting in with the coaching staff for pre-scout meetings on game days since suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Canadiens’ second game this season.

“I think more than anything, I’m seeing the game through different people’s eyes,” Dach said about being part of the meetings. “I had a lot of good talks with Marty about the game and the way he sees it and the way I see it. Good discussions like that. I think as a player it’s only going to benefit me in the long run. Obviously, you’d love to be out there playing with the guys and competing each and every night, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year. So you find other ways to work on my game and build up for next year.

“As much as you are a part of the team and are around the guys, you’re still missing a big part of your life on the road trips, in the games, before the games, all that little stuff,” Dach added. “So it’s just nice to be able to stay connected with everybody.”

Dach said St. Louis and the coaching staff have been asking for his input during the meetings.

“They’re open to a two-way conversation or a discussion rather than just being told what to do and thinking about it,” Dach said. “It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas back and forth and talk about what I see and talk about what they see and come up with a plan.”

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Dach has resumed skating by himself again and was in full equipment Wednesday morning at the Bell Centre. He is expected to be ready to return for the start of next season.

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Road to Recovery — Part 2

Newhook has played seven games since missing the previous 27 with a high ankle sprain that he suffered during a game against the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre on Nov. 30.

Newhook said he didn’t sit in on the pre-scout meetings with Dach while recovering from his injury, but was part of the team meetings to stay up-to-date on any changes or tweaks the coaching staff was making in regards to systems and/or structure. Newhook added that he can’t imagine how tough it has been for Dach to be out for so long.

“It’s a tough task for anyone,” Newhook said. “But I think he’ll be back stronger, better next year.”

The toughest part about Newhook’s injury was that he couldn’t put any weight on his ankle for six weeks.

“Feeling like you’re not doing enough,” he said. “As athletes you always want to be doing something to feel like we’re making it better and speed up the process. But when you’re not weight-bearing you can’t do anything, so you’re just waiting to do something. That’s probably the hardest part.

“It was a little easier having Dacher here and Devo (Christian Dvorak), HP (Rafaël Harvey-Pinard),” Newhook added about other injured teammates. “There was guys around and you kind of lean on those guys to get you through it and the training staff as well. It’s definitely tough when the team is gone (on the road) for extended periods of time.”

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