Canadiens Mailbag: Does Max Domi belong at centre or wing?

Eric Engels is joined by Hockey Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh assistant coach Mark Recchi to discuss the proposed Penguins vs. Canadiens Qualifying Round series that will take place if and when the NHL season resumes.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions in for this week’s mailbag. Let’s dive right in.

Hey Mike. When I last touched base with Noah Juulsen, it was for this piece at the end of April, in which he said he was feeling really good and fully rehabilitated from the vision and migraine issues he suffered with for much of the last year-and-a-half.

I think one of the biggest takeaways here was that Juulsen felt symptom-free after returning for a game in March. Considering he hadn’t played one since November, that was a big win for him.

And you might consider it an even bigger win that the B.C. native was able to get that game in right before the pandemic forced the AHL to pause its season. You can imagine how much more challenging it would’ve been for Juulsen to do all that work to get back to being game-ready only to not have the opportunity to test himself out. Now he has the peace of mind of knowing he can do it again.

Also, Juulsen did a conference call with Canadiens reporters on May 22 and said he continues to be symptom-free. So long as he keeps moving along without issue, there’s great hope in him reviving his NHL career some day in the not-too-distant future.

The 23-year-old will need a new contract prior to next season, but that should get sorted relatively easily.

Hey Sportsmom. The simple answer is that Phase 2 is fully voluntary, hence no players returning to Montreal to participate.

But I understand you’re looking for more depth on why more players wouldn’t volunteer to return, so here goes.

Without any guarantee that Phases 3 and 4 of the return-to-play plan will ever get off the ground, both the organization and the players felt it was best that the players remain where they are. The hope on the organization’s side is that players electing to stay where they are at least have access to ice — and it’s a given that most (if not all) of them do. And the players feel that so long as they don’t have to travel to have access to whatever they’d have access to in Brossard, there’s no point in them returning from the United States or Europe to go through a 14-day quarantine in Canada without any assurances of training camp getting underway in July.

At this stage, players can only skate in groups of six, and no coaches or members of team personnel are allowed on the ice with them. So, no one’s really missing out by not returning to Montreal.

Hey Blain. Right now, only Jonathan Drouin, Charles Hudon, Paul Byron and Michael McNiven are training together in Brossard.

As I mentioned above, there’s very little structure to Phase 2 on-ice participation. I’d imagine they’re going to just be focused on conditioning for the time being, as many players around the league haven’t spent this long away from the ice since they were young kids.

They’re talking about a potential three-week training camp and two exhibition games in July, if all the remaining details for a resumption of the 2019-20 season get sorted. That’s plenty of time to work out structure and chemistry before facing Pittsburgh in the three-to-five-game play-in round.

Hi Jared. Assuming Jesperi Kotkaniemi has sufficiently healed from the spleen injury that ended his season prematurely at the beginning of March, I’d be shocked if he wasn’t included on the team’s roster.

Don’t forget the Canadiens depleted themselves prior to the trade deadline — moving Marco Scandella, Nick Cousins and Ilya Kovalchuk, but also sending centre Nate Thompson to the Philadelphia Flyers. With Thompson gone, they need the depth Kotkaniemi can help provide down the middle.

The 19-year-old may have had a tough sophomore season in Montreal, but he had a strong showing at the end of it in Laval, with 13 points in 12 games for the Rocket. The hope has to be that, on top of feeling healthy, Koktaniemi feels rejuvenated and much more prepared to play NHL hockey.

And even if he doesn’t, you’d think the Canadiens would want him to be present and there for the experience.

As for right now, the rule remains in place that drafted players won’t be permitted to sign entry-level contracts that make them eligible to play this summer. That means Alexander Romanov’s new deal likely won’t commence before the 2020-21 season gets underway.

I’ve been told the rule is unlikely to change, but it’s still a negotiation point — one of many — in ongoing discussions between the NHL and NHLPA.

Obviously, Romanov wants to play, and that has little to do with burning the first year of his contract. He has no chance of playing 40 games and getting a year closer to free agency, so that’s not much of a concern for the Canadiens either. Both parties would rather see him skating and playing sooner rather than having to wait for next season.

And if next season gets underway as late as January, the Canadiens would likely loan Romanov out to a European team in the interim.

While that scenario would guarantee he’s not sitting out of games from March of this year to January of next, it’s hardly ideal. The idea that the 20-year-old would finally be under contract with the Canadiens but assuming risk of injury with another team is almost as bad as having him cool his heels for up to 10 months.

But we’re not living in an ideal world, and this is just another example of it.

Hey Jason. I wish I could say it’s a slam dunk, but I’m right there with you in thinking it’s a 50-50 proposition at best.

While it’s encouraging the NHL and NHLPA were able to find common ground relatively quickly on how they’d like to resume their season, the when and where factors are that much more challenging to pin down.

And even once they get those key details sorted, figuring out all the logistics of how to create the safest environment possible is an unimaginably complicated task.

Then you have to get the players to agree, and that might be the biggest challenge of all.
I remain hopeful that NHL hockey will be played this summer. I know the NHL is doing everything it possibly can to make it so.

But I don’t think that anyone can tell you it will definitely happen.

This might seem counterintuitive to some of you, but I believe they’re in the process of doing what they need to do.

Since hitting the reset button in 2018, the Canadiens have built up what most analysts consider to be a top-five prospect pool in the league. With 14 picks in the upcoming draft — and provided their positioning isn’t too greatly affected by the play-in/playoffs — they have an excellent opportunity to infuse more young talent in the future and potentially secure some assets that can help them be more competitive right now through trade.

So long as general manager Marc Bergevin stays true to keeping his young players, development is going to be the most critical aspect of the reset. It’s one thing to know you have players with great potential, it’s another to coax it out of them.

Former Canadiens defenceman Francis Bouillon was a good hire on that front. Rob Ramage has been a key part of the program for quite some time. And I’ve heard great things about both of them from the players they work with.

Beyond that, Bergevin needs to continue to find value where he can on the market and the team needs to earn its way into the playoffs to gain more precious experience. And sure, the Canadiens might prefer to have a high draft pick this summer, but they have to look at the bright side of being gifted the opportunity to play meaningful games instead.

Hi Steve. I don’t believe they’ll shorten next season, even if starts in January.

The fact is, they need the money — especially to help make up the deficit from revenues lost during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, would it be too much to ask to cut the pre-season down to three weeks and two exhibition games? If they can do that for their resumption-of-play model, why not carry it forward to all future seasons?

Hey Joshua. First off, it’s worth noting that Max Domi isn’t making any demands to play centre.

As of right now, however, that’s the place for him. With Thompson gone, with Kotkaniemi potentially sidelined and with Poehling ill-prepared to be a third-line centre in a playoff scenario, Domi belongs there.

Personally, I think he’s a more effective centreman than he is a winger — and for all the reasons he recently advanced: that playing the position puts the puck on his stick more often, that he can attack from both sides and that it keeps him in motion.

Yes, Domi has defensive issues. And he’s not exactly a maven in the faceoff circle.

But he can get better in both departments.

Then it comes down to room down the middle long-term. That there’s less of it is a good thing for the Canadiens, but not necessarily one for Domi. That’s part of the reason I think Domi and the Canadiens ultimately settle on a one-year deal once his contract expires at the end of this season.

At least in that scenario, they can kick the can further down the road before deciding all together what’s best for all parties.

But Domi’s situation is among the most complicated ones the Canadiens have to deal with prior to next season. If they don’t see him as a centre, and if they feel they have good depth on the wing, they could use him as a trade chip, which is something that has been widely speculated about since last fall.

Hey Zachery. Want to qualify this answer by saying I’m not aware of any plans the Canadiens might have to trade Carey Price in the future.

But yes, of course it’s possible the franchise goaltender will be moved at some point over the next three to four years, especially if Cayden Primeau continues to take steps towards proving he can one day be a legitimate starting goaltender in the NHL.

Is it probable?

Tough to say, because a) Price has the ultimate say, given his no-movement clause, and b) he makes $10.5 million on the cap through 2026.

I’d imagine we’ll be breaking this down in much greater detail as we approach the Seattle expansion draft, when speculation about Price’s future in Montreal will unquestionably surge.

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