If you can only watch one game from the Memorial Cup tournament that runs this week in Saint John, N.B., make sure it’s the Friday-night tilt between the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Not only will the contest between Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League champions decide which team moves on to the playoff round, it will also be an intriguing opportunity to watch two of the leading candidates in the Habs’ deep pool of left-handed defence prospects face each other in a meaningful hockey game.
And with the way Oil King Kaiden Guhle and Bulldog Arber Xhekaj have been performing in junior hockey’s postseason these past few weeks, the meeting might even look a bit like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
Guhle, 20, was named WHL playoff MVP after the Oil Kings knocked off the Seattle Thunderbirds in six games in the final, collecting eight goals and eight assists over the course of 19 playoff games. But Xhekaj, 21, matched that pace with six goals and 10 assists in 18 OHL playoff games and was also clearly one of the best players on the ice in a tense, seven-game final series with the Windsor Spitfires.
Guhle’s game has grown considerably since he was taken 16th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. The 6’2”, 199-lb. rearguard’s heavy-hitting defensive game has always had a strong transition element to it that suggested a top-four floor, but the blossoming offence since coming over to the Oil Kings from the Prince Albert Raiders in a December trade could point the way to an eventual top-pairing role with the Canadiens.
Xhekaj’s career profile has been considerably more low-key than Guhle’s. Guhle has been a highly regarded prospect for quite some time, but Xhekaj’s rapid rise from unheralded junior walk-on with the Kitchener Rangers, to free agent signee with the Habs after last fall’s impressive training camp, to growing into a role this season as one of junior hockey’s best defencemen, has all the earmarks of a Horatio Alger story. Like Guhle, he was even part of a big mid-season trade, coming to Hamilton from London in January.
Watching him in action against the Spitfires, Xhekaj easily passes the eye test. At 6’4”, 214-lb., he hits like a tank and is a fearsome fighter when called upon to defend smaller teammates. More important, the skating is surprisingly good for a big man, with decent mobility and very good straightaway speed. He also has a good shot from the point that he can keep low for tips and is a decent passer as well, as evidenced by the slick pass he made to Habs’ prospect Jan Mysak (the only other Montreal Canadiens prospect playing in the tournament) that was the highlight of the night in the Bulldogs’ Game 7 win over the Spitfires.
The only obvious signs of trouble in his game at this stage of development are an unfortunate penchant for taking bad penalties at bad times and a mean streak that, when he loses control, has led to suspensions.
It will be interesting to see these two fine young defence prospects at Montreal’s training camp in the fall. While next season’s future has yet to be written, the odds are pretty good that both Guhle and Xhekaj will start the season in the American Hockey league with the Laval Rocket.
I expect both these players to become NHL regulars, with Guhle perhaps even having a realistic chance to win a job out of training camp or be called up as one of the first injury replacements during the season. And even with a logjam of fine LHDs in the Montreal Canadiens prospect pool that includes the likes of Jordan Harris, Matthias Norlinder, Jayden Struble, and Corey Schueneman, it’s difficult not to see Xhekaj’s special skillset winning him at least a bottom-pairing role in the NHL one day.
It’s not every day an NHL hockey team finds itself with a prospect pool that has a surplus of NHL talent that’s so strong in one area that it can be used to facilitate trades to address deficits in other areas. General manager Kent Hughes doesn’t appear to be the type of sports executive who would miss something like that; I expect to see some wheeling and dealing, once he figures out who his keepers are.