MONTREAL — Surely at some point this year you heard rumblings that the Montreal Canadiens might be wise to trade Max Domi this coming off-season in order to address a need on defence and free up room for some of the emerging talent at centre. I know I did.
I wouldn’t necessarily qualify them as rumours. I was never told by anyone that the Canadiens were, in fact, considering doing this.
But that didn’t stop the buzz from proliferating every time Domi went into a minor funk — which was more often than anyone would’ve hoped after he posted 28 goals and 72 points in his first season with the team — or every time he was moved from the middle to the wing in favour of 20-year-old Nick Suzuki.
I get it. If Phillip Danault is guaranteed to play against the opposition’s best players every night, if Suzuki’s 200-foot game, faceoff abilities and offensive potential makes him a more viable option at centre than on the wing, and if one of Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Ryan Poehling emerges in short order to be dependable enough in a third-line role, moving Domi to the left or right becomes the most logical thing to do.
And, moving forward, that potentially puts Domi on the outs because he’s unquestionably a more effective centre than he is a winger, and because the team’s depth on the wing makes it palatable to take advantage of his potential value on the trade market to address a more pressing need.
There’s also the fact that Domi, who’s nearing the end of a two-year, $6.3-million contract, is due a considerable raise — even if his production dipped to 17 goals and 44 points over 71 games.
With big decisions pending on 2021 free agents like Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry, and with the salary cap all but guaranteed to be affected in a negative way due to the global pandemic and its effect on hockey-related revenue, how much can the Canadiens afford to give Domi if they’re unsure of where he fits in their lineup? Not having a clear answer to that question will fuel the buzz that Domi’s future might be elsewhere.
But for as many reasons as people want to come up with for why Domi is a good trade candidate, I can think of just as many, if not more, for why the Canadiens should keep him.
The first was outlined by Domi himself on a Thursday conference call with Canadiens reporters.
“All I can really tell you is that I want to be with Montreal,” the 25-year-old said. “I want to be here. I love playing in Montreal, I love my teammates, I love this team and I love this city. My hope is to play here for a long time and it’s never changed since the time I played my first game here. So that’s that.”
It’s been evident in the way he’s played since arriving in Montreal — especially in contrast with what he showed over his first three seasons with the Arizona Coyotes — that his passion for playing in a market like this has, at least in part, fueled his success.
It’s important for the Canadiens to try to retain players who a) excel in this environment, and b) truly want to be in this environment. Especially talented ones like Domi, considering that so many other gifted players have recently spurned them in free agency.
About that talent — it’s at the core of why the Canadiens should favour getting Domi signed and keeping him in the fold for at least one more season. His speed and game-breaking ability fit perfectly with how the team wants to play. He’s one of their best playmakers and most dangerous players and those elements, in the evaluation process, should override his deficiency in the faceoff circle (he’s won just 46.6 per cent of the 1784 draws he’s taken with the Canadiens) and a selfish penalty he’s taken here or there and where he fits on any given night in their lineup.
But perhaps the most compelling thing for the Canadiens to consider—over what Domi might potentially fetch them on the trade market—is what he might look like in the playoffs.
Domi’s passion, his physicality, his grit, his abilities, and his history of coming up big in the biggest games (24 goals and 60 points in 58 playoff games with the OHL’s London Knights, and five goals and 10 points in seven games that led him to being named best forward on Team Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championship) lend to the idea he’d fare well in the one situation we haven’t seen him in since the Coyotes drafted him 12th overall in 2013.
“It’s my dream to play in the playoffs. It’s everyone’s dream,” said Domi. “And it’s very difficult to get there, and I can’t imagine …I can’t speak to what it’s like [because] I haven’t experienced that at this level. All I can really tell you, from whether it’s from the junior level or even younger than that or even watching on TV or seeing my dad [former Toronto Maple Leafs pugilist, Tie] growing up around that, [is that] it’s a whole other game.
“Everyone elevates their game to a whole other level. It’s night and day from an 82-game regular-season schedule, and it’s an absolute war out there.
“So it’s something that, again, whenever we have the opportunity to do that—which we work towards every single day—I will definitely be ready to go and I’m excited about that opportunity whenever it comes.”
What’s interesting is that it’s an opportunity that could come as early as this summer — albeit in a different format than Domi or any of us have ever seen before.
If it comes to pass that the NHL resumes the 2019-20 season with 24 teams involved in some form of tournament for the Stanley Cup, it will give the Canadiens a chance to make a more complete evaluation of what they have in Domi.
Maybe they see it that way, too, hence — as Domi explained on Thursday morning — no significant negotiations on a new contract with the Canadiens have materialized to this point.
“As of right now, no, there hasn’t been much discussed,” the Winnipeg native said. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s gone over my head and my agent takes care of a lot that stuff, but as far I’m concerned there hasn’t been much talk.”
For what it’s worth, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman back in early March that he didn’t anticipate he’d have any difficulty getting Domi extended.
And, all things considered, there’s nothing urgent or pressing in this file.
But until the ink is dry on a new contract, the rumblings will persist. I’d just caution that a lot of things need to be sorted before the Canadiens know for sure what they’ll do with Domi.