Canadiens Monday notebook: Alex Newhook’s increased role, Arber Xhekaj responds

Alex Newhook’s introduction to Montreal and the hockey market he was about to spend the next portion of his career in came relatively far from the Bell Centre or the practice facility in Brossard.

It came in a small three-on-three rink on the Côte-de-Liesse highway in the middle of summer. There were several NHL players on the ice playing in the Living Sisu Hockey League, but on this Aug. 1 evening, Newhook was the main attraction. The stands were packed, Newhook elicited a reaction from the crowd every time he touched the puck and his name was chanted several times throughout the evening.

After Newhook scored his first goal, he couldn’t help but laugh at the crowd’s reaction.

He wasn’t in Colorado anymore.

“Yeah, it was crazy,” Newhook said last week. “That was kind of my first taste of what the fan base is like here in Montreal. Yeah, that was pretty cool. I was expecting to kind of go out there and play in some shinny three-on-three league in the summer and, you know, packed place, people chanting my name. It was pretty crazy, but it was a lot of fun. It’s great to have that kind of energy around hockey here and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

This is the context for what is happening to Newhook now. With the season-ending knee injury to Kirby Dach, Newhook has been thrust into a position of great importance in this hockey-mad market. Not only is he centring the Montreal Canadiens’ second line, but he has also taken over for Dach as the primary centre for Juraj Slafkovský, the most important prospect in the organization.

So much for being eased into a new environment.

But this is what Newhook has longed for his entire NHL career, and something he lacked in Colorado. It is difficult to feel important at this young age — Newhook won’t be 23 until the end of January — when playing on a championship-calibre team.

“I think it’s definitely a different situation here than it was in Colorado, a winning team, and there’s not a lot of room for error in winning teams,” Newhook said. “You have to win every night, you’re always fighting to be first in the division, first in the Western Conference for my whole time there. But I did learn a lot, I think, playing with guys that are great NHL players that have had great careers and winning a Stanley Cup there. I really tried to just make the most of the situation, learn from older guys, learn from the situation.”

And in Montreal, he has entered a situation that is essentially the exact opposite of that. Newhook talked about how a lot of the discussion he had with the Colorado Avalanche coaching staff last season was on his need to be stronger on pucks, to win more puck battles, something that was somewhat deficient in his game but improved over the course of last season.

In Montreal, on the other hand, Newhook has had no such discussions with Martin St. Louis or his coaching staff.

“He’s told me he doesn’t really want to over-coach me a lot. It’s early. He just wants me to play,” Newhook said. “That’s been nice. Nice to hear that. Just go out there and play and trust yourself. I’ve been doing that, so I’m going to continue to do that and learn a lot on the way.”

Newhook does, however, feel a certain sense of responsibility with Slafkovský on his wing.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I think he’s a great player. I think he’s still young and he’s still growing. I think it’s part of every player’s development to come in the league and it’s always figuring it out and figuring out how to be effective. But I think he’s playing well. I think he’s playing to his strengths. And, yeah, I’m there for him. I know what it’s like to be a guy that’s first coming into the league and I want to see him continue to grow. We need him to grow, just like our team here.”

Thus far, Newhook has been great. His speed is obvious, but what’s been remarkable is his motor — he can maintain that speed throughout a shift, and displays it skating toward the opposing goal as much as he does skating toward his own zone. He has been a buzzsaw, a disruptive and creative presence with three goals through his first four games — it took him 15 games to score three goals last season.

I asked St. Louis and Mike Matheson what they’ve learned about Newhook early in the season that they didn’t know before, and their answers were quite telling just because of what they were known for as players. St. Louis has often said his most elite skill as a player was getting better, having an ability to continuously develop throughout his career. Matheson, if you ask any of his teammates, is most admired for his professionalism and dedication in the gym to get himself prepared to play and excel.

“I knew he’s got speed, he’s got good hands, competes. Those are obvious,” St. Louis said. “But then you get to be around him every day, there’s some seriousness about him about getting better and being good. You can see the passion, the care, and that’s fun for a coach, having that in a player. … I don’t know if you can force that. I think that comes from within. Because there’s talented players that get picked really high and they’re not necessarily passionate about the game, where they might not reach their full potential because of that. So I think with Newy, he’s just very passionate about it, and you can see it every day.”

If St. Louis is impressed with your desire to get better, you’re doing something right.

“I’d say as a player, I’ve been very impressed with his speed, but also his ability to make plays and control the puck that way,” Matheson said. “As a guy, he’s very diligent and a great professional in that sense. I think he’s been a great addition to our group, both on and off the ice.”

If Matheson finds you diligent, you’re doing something right.

Newhook feels refreshed in Montreal, ready to assert himself as an NHL player. We’ll see how he does in that goal, but the early returns have been very promising.

Arber Xhekaj tells his side of the story

Arber Xhekaj’s decision to fight Ryan Reaves after a questionable hit on Kaiden Guhle on opening night only reaffirmed his total lack of fear about dropping the gloves in the NHL.

Reaves’ reaction to the fight, however, seemed somewhat fishy.

Yeah, Reaves saying he got jumped doesn’t really jive with the video.

Not long after that response from Reaves on how the fight went down, I asked Xhekaj about it. And his recollection really does fit with what you see in the video above.

“I don’t know,” Xhekaj began, somewhat sheepishly. “I did drop my one glove first, and then I waited for him to get up, and then he dropped both his gloves and started swinging, so then I continued, obviously. I think his game is more of where you get the square-up, because he’s pretty good off the square-up. But I mean, I’m not doing it for the show, I’m not doing it for myself, I’m sticking up for my teammate. I’m not putting on a show where I’m tapping you, we’re going out to centre ice and we do the whole circle around. If you throw a dirty hit like that that I don’t like, I’m going to go and grab you right away and we’re going to go right away. I’m not going to do a whole show with him.”

This is what Xhekaj is referring to as something he wasn’t going to do in that situation.

“He did throw a couple of big hits,” Xhekaj said. “I think he knew I was on the ice, and as soon as he turned around, he was ready to go. I don’t know, maybe if I started swinging right away, then you could call it jumping, but I didn’t see it that way.”

The context for that fight is Reaves coming out for opening night flexing and pointing to his biceps in the player introductions. This was his first fight in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform, his first opportunity to prove to their fans — many of whom doubted the wisdom of handing Reaves a three-year contract — that he was worth the commitment. It didn’t go the way he probably envisioned it, and his reaction is a reflection of that.

I suggested this theory to Xhekaj, and he laughed a little, but would go no further. I told him he didn’t have to, I would do it for him. Consider that done.

The Canadiens, unfortunately, don’t play the Maple Leafs again until March 9.

The uncomfortable goalie situation

Cayden Primeau came off the ice after practice Thursday and sat at his locker, his equipment still on, sweat pouring off him. His locker is in the corner of the Canadiens’ dressing room at their practice facility, just next to the door where the media enter and, more significantly, on the opposite side of the room from the team’s regular goalies Sam Montembeault and Jake Allen.

They are close to the door that leads to the team area, where the Canadiens players hang out. Primeau’s locker is close to the exit, where the media leave the room and the entire Canadiens environment.

As Primeau sat there and contemplated things, he was asked how the current arrangement was going. The look on his face said it all.

“I’m trying to make the most of it,” he said.

The Canadiens play four games this week after playing four games over the first two weeks of the season. If there was ever a time for Primeau to get into a game, it would be now. But in all likelihood, he will remain in waiver prison up until the time Canadiens management decides they are willing to risk putting him on waivers.

The Canadiens are convinced Primeau won’t get through if he does find himself on waivers, but the look on Primeau’s face after practice Thursday is a good reminder of why waivers exist to begin with. It is a mechanism to make sure teams can’t simply hide good, young players in the minors for as long as they want. At some point, they have to make a decision. And if that decision winds up being attempting to slip a player through waivers, that could provide that player a lifeline.

That’s what happened to Montembeault, and though Primeau would never say something like this out loud, one look at his face makes it clear he wouldn’t particularly mind something like that happening to him, either.

The season began with five teams carrying three goalies on their rosters, and that number is now down to four after the Los Angeles Kings got veteran David Rittich through waivers on Oct. 11. The Canadiens, Red Wings, Sabres and Flyers are all still in the same situation, and none of them have given their third goalie a game as of yet.

Primeau’s career is only beginning, but it is difficult to believe there is a team out there that would consider him a better option than their current backup goalie considering Primeau has played all of 21 NHL games and has won three of them. He’s 24 and has had to watch as Strauss Mann has already gotten four games in Laval, games Primeau should have been playing.

At some point soon, the Canadiens are simply going to have to take the risk of losing Primeau on waivers. The reward would be to have him playing, and in the event he gets claimed on waivers, chances are pretty good he will wind up back on waivers at some point in the very near future.

The current situation is not good for anyone.

The new PK makes new faces easier to integrate

Four games into the season, Jesse Ylönen has played 14:28 on the penalty kill. This would be impossible to check, but it is very likely Ylönen had not played 14:28 on the penalty kill in his entire professional career prior to this season.

Not only is Ylönen on the PK, he is on the top unit alongside Jake Evans, and has looked very good doing it. Despite playing top minutes, Evans and Ylönen have only been on the ice for one power-play goal against.

Evans thinks the Canadiens’ new penalty-killing system, which employs a diamond formation as opposed to last year’s setup of two defencemen down low forming a sort of triangle with one of the forwards and the other forward roaming up top, has helped with the integration of new personnel.

“I think it’s just a little bit less movement and a little more simplified,” Evans said last week. “The Chicago power play was kind of switching around guys at the top, and we’re just covering a spot and kind of let them work around you instead of you trying to read off of them.

“I think if you look at the best penalty kills in the league, they’re just always on the same page. There’s no set formula on what penalty kill works the best, it’s more being on the same page.”

Ylönen, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Jordan Harris are among the players taking on a much bigger role on the penalty kill compared to last season, when none of them topped 1:30 of PK time per game. Each of them is averaging more than double his penalty-killing time from a year ago. And none of them have had a more drastic jump than Ylönen, who went from 11 seconds a game last season to 3:37 this season.

“I like for my guys on my team to have a role,” St. Louis said of Ylönen. “They’re not just killing minutes, they have a role. And (Ylönen) for us right now, he’s killing penalties. I think he might not realize it right now, but that has a lot of value. As a player, you’re upping your value by being able to do that. I know he has an offensive side, and he won’t lose that offensive side, but he’s learning to play a part of the game he might have never done before, and to me, that’s a player who is upping his value.”

(Photo of Alex Newhook facing the Capitals on Saturday: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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