GLENDALE, AZ. — Max Domi never officially asked for a trade out of Arizona, and he’s been nothing but effusive in his praise for the Coyotes organization since the June day he was shipped to the Montreal Canadiens.
But you can see why — after a breakout rookie season that saw him score 18 goals and 52 points — the lustre wore off playing in the Copper State for the 23-year-old Winnipeg native who grew up in Toronto. The Coyotes are a team that spent almost as much money burying contracts on long-term injury reserve than they did on their forwards over the three years Domi played for them.
They’re also a team that never recorded more than 78 points in any of his seasons, never coming close to within a sniff of a playoff appearance.
If you scratched your head wondering how a player as talented as Domi lagged over his final two seasons in Arizona, averaging just over half a point per game after his impressive rookie campaign, consider how one scout in attendance at Tuesday’s game between the Coyotes and New York Islanders put it.
“One of the biggest reasons Domi was drafted 12th overall in 2013 was because of how passionate of a player he was,” the Western Conference surveyor said.
“When I watched him over the last two years, I watched him a lot and it just felt like the passion that got him here slipped away. I don’t like saying it, but it felt like he was just punching in and punching out at times, and that’s not the player we knew beforehand.”
On Thursday, in Domi’s first game against his former team, the 23-year-old looked much more like his younger self.
Wearing that white Canadiens jersey with the red and blue trimmings, he was on his toes, provoking chances and leading his line in Montreal’s 2-1 win. The away version of the jersey he referenced earlier in the day as his raison d’être in this resurgent season that’s seen him register 14 goals and 19 assists in 36 games.
“I think for me, personally, just wearing that jersey every game and stepping on the ice at the Bell Centre, at home, in front of that fanbase with the music playing and I’m getting ready to go, and the history that comes with putting that jersey on is pretty surreal,” Domi said. “Really, everything in general of wearing that jersey is something that’s a huge privilege and something you definitely don’t take for granted, and I’m enjoying every second of it.”
He reminisced about wearing shorts and flip-flops to the arena in Glendale and spoke glowingly of life in nearby Scottsdale, where the food around town and the people he encountered made it all a pleasurable experience. “And then you get to play hockey here, too,” he added.
Was it special? Domi said it was. Was it always special? Domi’s play said otherwise.
But his appreciation for being a part of the most storied franchise in hockey now, thousands of miles north-east of where he began his career, has brought out the player the Canadiens hoped they were getting when they sent Alex Galchenyuk back to the Coyotes in exchange for him.
“He’s got a lot of character, obviously,” said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price after making 36 saves and notching the 300th win of his NHL career. “His compete level is always high and he’s obviously a great character in the locker room. He brings a lot of positive attitude and he’s been an excellent addition to our hockey club.”
That passion and work ethic Price referenced almost paid dividends on a couple of occasions for Domi against the Coyotes. He started the play that Shea Weber capitalized on to put his new team up 1-0 with a power-play goal 22 seconds into the middle period and he came close to adding a goal of his own 18 minutes later.
Domi didn’t officially make the score sheet on Weber’s goal and he whiffed on an empty-netter that would’ve padded Montreal’s lead with a minute remaining.
“I’ll take the win,” he said.
He didn’t have as many as he would’ve liked to have enjoyed in his time with Arizona.
Coyotes general manager John Chayka spoke to why that was, roughly eight hours before the puck dropped at Gila River Arena.
“Obviously we’re a budget team,” he said. “In my opinion, you have to build a strong team to attract investors, attract people who do want to invest in the team. And it’s a chicken and the egg type of thing. You know, people make money because they’re smart, and they want to invest in teams that they see ascending. I think we’re at that stage now where we can start projecting and we can start putting a roster together that makes a lot of sense to be able to spend a little more.
“But, at the same time, that’s on myself and our staff in management to prove that we can take that next step here and hopefully make the playoffs.”
A third consecutive loss for Arizona on Thursday pushed them down to 13th out of 15 teams in their conference — and nine points away from a playoff spot in the West.
The win for Montreal helped them maintain their hold on a playoff spot, which they’ve been in for the majority of the season.
It was a game played in front of a crowd that was more than 7,000 patrons short of the arena’s 18,300-seat capacity. One that provided a memory worth savouring for Domi, nonetheless.
There was a two-second, official acknowledgment of Domi’s presence on Montreal’s bench in the first period, which was followed by a 20-second video tribute to his time in Arizona in the third period. Things he said were “pretty cool.”
The game ended shortly after. Domi stood by his dressing-room stall and answered a few questions, and then he left smiling and laughing, off to say his goodbyes to a few former teammates before riding off to Las Vegas to continue his season with his new ones.
“To be a part of any NHL franchise is special,” Domi said.
But things sure do appear different now that he’s a part of the Canadiens.