Named the winners of this year’s OHL Trade Deadline, the Hamilton Bulldogs made a splash on Thursday, acquiring defenseman Arber Xhekaj from the Kitchener Rangers. In exchange for the overager, the 13-14-1-1 Rangers add another forward in Navrin Mutter.
Joining the winger in the package deal, the Rangers acquire a flurry of draft selections, including a second-round pick in 2022, a second-round pick in 2025, a third-round pick in 2023, a third-round pick in 2024, and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2023.
“Arber’s been a player I’ve pursued for quite a while,” General Manager Steve Staios told the Hamilton Spectator on Sunday.
Reuniting with his former bench boss, Jay McKee, in his hometown, Xhekaj brings his aggressive playing style and high hockey IQ to the GTHA. Now in his last season of major junior, Xhekaj bursted onto the scene as an undrafted prospect in 2018-19. Earning a roster spot under the watchful eye of McKee, the lefty, during his first OHL season, compiled only three points on two goals and a single assist.
Continuing to develop and shape his game under Mike McKenzie, the dual-citizen, prior to a league-wide shutdown, amassed 17 points on six goals and 11 assists. The last action he would see for over a year at the OHL level, Xhekaj received an invite to Montreal Canadiens rookie camp, where he showcased his skills, earning an invite to the team’s main training camp.
Fast forward to the first night of games on the 2021-22 calendar, Xhekaj was awarded for his performance, putting pen to paper on a three-year, entry-level contract. While marking a monumental step for the 20-year-old, he was returned to the Rangers for the start of the season.
Appointed to the club’s leadership group as an alternate captain, Xhekaj skated in 18 contests, tying his 2019-20 totals, amassing 17 points on six goals and 11 assists. Now, as Xhekaj completes his junior tenure, he joins a fellow countryman and Canadiens prospect in forward Jan Mysak.
“While on one hand, we will be extremely sad to see Arber go we are excited that he will get to play in his hometown to finish his OHL career,” said Head Coach and General Manager Mike McKenzie. “He came to Kitchener as a free agent, worked so hard and earned himself an NHL contract. It is a great story and a testament to Arber’s work ethic and mentality. We are proud to have played a small part in his hockey career and wish him the best of luck in Hamilton and beyond.”
While bidding adieu to a valuable asset, the Rangers tack on another forward, welcoming the likes of Navrin Mutter. A native of Lucan, ON, mutter was selected in the fifth round (83rd overall) of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection. Debuting with the Bulldogs in 2018, the lefty, much like Xhekaj, compiled only three points on two goals and a single assist. Despite a limited showing, Mutter helped them en route to a Ross Robertson Cup championship.
In 2018-19, the winger took things to the next level, playing a career-high 67 games, amassing 13 points. Entering a pandemic-shortened campaign in 2019-20, Mutter, a 2001 birthday, amassed a career-high 20 points across 60 games played.
During the OHL’s cancelled season, Mutter signed his first pro contract, skating with the Stockton Heat in the American Hockey League. Returning in October for the start of a new campaign, Mutter earned himself a letter, appointed by the team as an alternate captain. Playing 23 games in the first half with the Bulldogs, Mutter compiled six points on five goals and a single assist.
Making his Rangers debut on Sunday night against the London Knights, Mutter tallied his first goal in a 6-2 loss at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. The Rangers return to action on Jan. 15, facing the Erie Otters for the third time in eight days. On the other hand, an upgraded Hamilton team is set to meet with Niagara on Wednesday, January 12.