Canadiens’ 3 Unsung Heroes at the Quarter Mark

The Montreal Canadiens have had a fantastic start to their season, considering they were projected to be in the bottom five of the league before it began. They are 12-10-1, 19th in the NHL, and two points back of a wild card spot. It is unlikely that they will stay in the playoff hunt as the season goes on, but it is a perfect look at how quickly a team can turn around their fortunes in such a short time with an excellent management group and players stepping up their game. Here is a look at three of those players.

Sam Montembeault

Sam Montembeault (Monty) was claimed off waivers from the Florida Panthers last season by the Montreal Canadiens to add goaltending depth after it was announced that Carey Price would miss most of the season. The team wanted to have Cayden Primeau play the bulk of his games in the American Hockey League with the Laval Rocket to fine-tune his play and get his confidence back after some disastrous stints with the Habs the previous season. Montembeault was standing in as the backup to Jake Allen and was projected to play 20-25 games at the most. Allen, however, dealt with a rash of injuries that left Montreal using Montembeault the majority of the time last season, playing 38 games but winning only eight with a save percentage (SV%) of .891 and goals against average (GAA) of 3.77. Montembeault did not play well and was a part of why the Canadiens finished last in the league.

Sam Montembeault Montreal Canadiens
Sam Montembeault, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Montembeault re-signed with the Canadiens in the offseason for two seasons at a $1 million annual average value (AAV). This season, the goal was to back up Allen and play 20-25 games. After last season not many saw him succeeding very well as the backup, but Monty has surprised everyone and is playing better statistically than Allen. In eight games this season, Monty is 5-2-1 with a .924 SV% and is tied for fourth in the league in that stat; he is also eighth in GAA at 2.47. This is a far cry from the inconsistent play from last season and a ray of hope with the recent struggles of Allen. If Montembeault can keep this up, the Habs may be closer to making the playoffs than drafting Connor Bedard.

Arber Xhekaj

The story of Arber Xhekaj is remarkable: he was never drafted in the NHL or the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Still, he did manage to work his way onto the lineup of the Kitchener Rangers, where he played for four and a half seasons before being traded to the Hamilton Bulldogs. He helped the Bulldogs reach the Memorial Cup Final by scoring 16 points in 18 games and using his physical presence to keep the opposing players off guard. He was invited to the Canadiens’ training camp in the fall of 2020-21, where he played so well that then-general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin signed him to an entry-level contract.

Arber Xhekaj Montreal Canadiens
Arber Xhekaj, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Xhekaj came into this season’s camp with a winning attitude and a goal to make the Canadiens or the Rocket. Due to injuries to Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson, Xhekaj, along with rookies Kaiden Ghule and Jordan Harris, made the opening-day roster. Xhekaj took this opportunity and ran with it, as he currently leads all rookies in penalty minutes and is second in the league. His three goals put him 11th in rookie scoring and first for rookie defencemen, and his six points are 18th in rookie scoring and third on the Canadiens for defence. These are significant numbers to start the season for a guy who was predicted to be nothing more than a bottom pairing defenceman who could fight. Xhekaj’s play is a huge reason why the Habs have eight defencemen on their roster after the return of Matheson and Edmundson, and why they may need to move a veteran defenceman shortly.

Jonathan Kovacevic

Jonathan Kovacevic was a waiver claim early this season to help with the defensive depth of the Canadiens, with Edmundson and Matheson out with injuries and three unproven rookies in the lineup. The hope was that Kovacevic’s AHL experience would be a good stop-gap until the veteran defencemen returned, and he could play well enough in the NHL to be a solid seventh defenceman. Like Xhekaj, Kovacevic has played well enough to convince Montreal’s coaching staff and management to keep eight defencemen on the team and sit veteran Chris Wideman.

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Kovacevic has been the most consistent defenceman in the Canadiens lineup this season; he doesn’t play an exciting game but plays safe and rarely makes costly mistakes. The pairing of him and Jordan Harris on the third pairing had been a pleasant surprise and led Montreal’s defence in goals for per 60 (GF/60) and goals against per 60 (GA/60) with 3.53 and 1.60, respectively. With eight defencemen, one of the young guns does have to sit out of a game, and Kovacevic is in that rotation, but his play has been making it hard for coach Martin St. Louis to choose which guy to sit.

There have been quite a few heroes this season. Kirby Dach is finally breaking out and is having a great start to the season, Sean Monahan is looking healthy and back to form, and of course, the duo of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki are both playing at a point-per-game pace. They could all be mentioned in this article, but the unsung ones are the guys not getting all the recognition or accolades, they are the ones who are playing steady and seemingly coming from nowhere to help the Habs win.

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