Glendale, AZ. — Forgive us for breaking one of the cardinal rules of sports analysis, but we’re judging one of the NHL’s biggest summer trades just seven months after it was made.
Based on several factors — the age difference between the players involved, the contractual status of both of them (one will become an unrestricted free agent before the other), the money being paid to both, and the difference in production between them to date — the deal that sent Alex Galchenyuk away from the Montreal Canadiens and brought Max Domi back from the Arizona Coyotes on June 16 is a win for the Canadiens.
The 23-year-old Domi thriving at centre with Montreal and the 24-year-old Galchenyuk being relegated to the wing after his first 17 games with Arizona makes it a clean one, and we don’t see that changing over time.
Yes, we’ve considered that Galchenyuk, who has 11 points in 23 games, suffered an injury in training camp that required a minor procedure and forced him to the sidelines until the eighth game of the season; that he produced eight points in his first nine games at centre; that it’s still early in his tenure with the Coyotes; and that Domi, who’s producing at an unprecedented rate in his first full year at centre in the NHL, could be in for a course correction.
But none of that changes the fact that Domi has proven in 35 games — managing 14 goals and 19 assists — what Galchenyuk couldn’t prove in his six seasons with the Canadiens.
Not only did Coyotes general manager John Chayka not foresee that being the case when he pulled the trigger on this deal, he thought he was acquiring a player that could help his team more at centre than the one he was giving up.
“Our thesis on it is [Galchenyuk] has the ability and we think that he has natural tendencies that lend itself to that,” Chayka said in the immediate aftermath of the trade. “We feel, just based off of our research and what we’ve looked at, that he has the capacity to do it. I don’t think we’d make this deal if we didn’t think he had the ability to play centre.”
We’ll know for sure if Chayka still feels this way when he addresses the media on Thursday. No matter what he says, it isn’t going to change our view.
We believe Galchenyuk has an elite shot, elite hands and elite playmaking abilities, but his attention to detail, or lack thereof, and his level of awareness without the puck falls too short for him to be consistently relied upon as a centre.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin felt this way and expressed it publicly on numerous occasions over the two years leading up to his decision to finally part with the player he drafted third overall in 2012. Former Canadiens coach Michel Therrien felt this way up until he was removed from his position in February of 2017. And current Canadiens coach Claude Julien agreed, from the day he took over from Therrien to the day Galchenyuk was traded to the Coyotes.
It would seem Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet is now on the same page, too, considering what he said about Galchenyuk on Dec. 1, when he moved him away from centre after a stint that saw him produce zero goals and only three assists in 13 games.
“I think moving to the wing will get his feet moving,” Tocchet said. “I don’t think he’s been getting his feet moving because he’s been watching, wondering, ‘Where am I supposed to go?’ When you think where to go, what’s the first thing you do? You slow down, you don’t anticipate, you don’t react.
“Brad Richardson knows my system and most nights Richie knows where to go and he looks fast because he reacts fast. Derek Stepan knows my system and knows where to go. As an offensive player, Alex wants to go from A to Z sometimes instead of going through the progression.”
Tocchet’s system wasn’t too complicated for Nick Schmaltz to learn in a hurry after being traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Coyotes for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini on Nov. 25.
Schmaltz has since produced three goals and three assists and appeared very comfortable without the puck in his nine games at centre with Arizona, while Galchenyuk, who was hampered by another injury that kept him out of three December games, is slowly getting back to his game at wing.
“I think once [Galchenyuk] starts to get it going here or there I think it’ll start to relax him a little bit,” said Tocchet following his team’s 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday. “Right now I’ll keep him on the wing, but he could move back [to centre].”
As for Domi, his progression in the middle of the ice has changed the complexion of the Canadiens to the point that Julien wouldn’t consider moving him back to wing for any reason.
“I don’t know that the wing was a natural position for him,” Julien told reporters one week ago.
Bergevin was a little more cautious about calling Domi a centre less than 24 hours after making his acquisition.
The Canadiens’ GM felt confident enough Domi would excel in a hockey market to make the deal. He liked the fact Domi was more than one year younger than Galchenyuk and that he would be under team control as a restricted free agent for two years longer. He was happy to give him a two-year contract with an annual cap hit that was close to $2 million cheaper than Galchenyuk’s. And he felt there was a bit more untapped potential in Domi — with him coming over 222 games into his career versus Galchenyuk leaving with 418 games under his belt.
Bergevin hoped Domi could plug a hole at centre temporarily, but he didn’t expect to have found something in Domi that he’s been looking for since he took over as GM six years ago.
“As a centreman it’s a tough job, but Max down low is quick on loose pucks and he competes hard,” said Bergevin on Dec. 8. “He’s back hard, and he puts a lot of backside pressure. He wants to win and he wants to make a difference.”
All Chayka could say in an email to Sportsnet last week was that Galchenyuk is “A dynamic offensive player, with a scorer’s mentality, that complements our existing core,” adding, “We look forward to him growing with our young core of players here.”
What was left unsaid — Chayka denied multiple requests (from us and several other Montreal-based reporters) to address the subject of Galchenyuk’s viability at centre — speaks volumes about how the trade has played out so far.
That both Chayka and Galchenyuk wanted to wait until the very last minute to discuss it (they’re scheduled to speak just hours before the Canadiens and Coyotes meet for their first game since the trade was made) is revealing in itself.
This deal hasn’t painted them in as favourable of a light as they expected it would on the day it was made, and the risk that it never will looms large as both players move forward in their current positions.