Q&A: Canadiens’ Domi on transition to centre, improving on breakout year

Max Domi was quick to grab the rebound off the boards to pull off a wraparound goal against Mikko Koskinen and give the Canadiens a lead over the Oilers.

BROSSARD, Que. — Max Domi’s sitting at his stall in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room at their south-shore practice facility, peeling off the last layers of his equipment when we hit him with a fact he is completely unaware of.

“Did you know you finished second on the team in shots on net last season,” we ask.

“Are you serious? I had no clue,” Domi responds. “Who was first?”

Let’s just say he wasn’t surprised to learn that Montreal’s leading goal scorer, Brendan Gallagher, had 99 more shots on net than Domi’s 203.

“I’ll work on it,” he says with a laugh.

This is the Domi we’ve come to know in his short time in Montreal. He’s uber-competitive, he’s passionate, and he’s eager to show that his 28 goals and 72 points in his first season at centre and with the Canadiens was more a function of his work ethic than anything else.

What follows is the product of conversations held over the last two days with the 24-year-old Winnipeg native who grew up in Toronto. We wanted to know if he could sense his explosive breakout in 2018-19 coming, how he intends to follow up on it, how he feels about playing centre and how he can improve at the position.

Sportsnet: What were your expectations coming into last season?

Max Domi: Obviously it was like almost a fresh start. I think I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. It was something that I was thinking about for a long, long time and I was just super excited to be a Montreal Canadien. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was like, ‘Finally I have an opportunity to chase my dream.’ Not that I wasn’t doing that in Arizona, but it was a different feel. I loved playing in Arizona, don’t get me wrong. I would never say anything bad about that organization, and they treated me great. But that being said, this is the Montreal Canadiens. It’s like, ‘Holy smokes, this is super cool and I just want to make sure I’m giving it my all.’ To do that and help this team win is just so enjoyable and that was my mindset coming in.

SN: Why did it work so well at centre? It’s well-documented that it’s a tough transition to that position at this level.

Domi: It’s a good question. I don’t know. I think when you get thrown into the fire, so to speak, you don’t have a choice. Again, it was a new situation, new team, new teammates, and all this stuff. So why not a new position?

When (Canadiens coach) Claude (Julien) had first asked me about it in the summertime, it was kind of like, ‘Ooh, that’s kind of interesting. Never really thought about it before.’ I’ve played a few games at centre, but it’s kind of an honour to be asked, to have that trust from the coach before you even play for him. That’s a pretty special feeling, so I was really excited about the opportunity. I just embraced the opportunity and the challenge and was ready to take it on.

SN: How did moving to centre free up the best elements of your game and allow them to shine?

Domi: Speed, I think. And being able to attack on both sides of the ice was huge. As a left winger or right winger — I played primarily left in Arizona — I found myself getting stuck on the wall, and when I’m not moving my feet that’s kind of when I’m not playing at my best. It’s a bad habit I had, for sure.

But at centre you have to be moving your feet at all times. You have to be supporting on all sides and you’re always moving. Not that you have to be skating at full speed everywhere, but you’re at least always gliding.

If you watch a guy like Sidney Crosby — and I’ve watched a lot of him since I was a little kid — he’s the best glider of all time. This guy’s maintaining his speed to the point where that’s a unique skill. I figured out I have to watch that and learn from it. When I was playing wing, it was either full speed or not going anywhere. I had to find that middle gear, that three, four, five gear. It wasn’t just like one or seven, if you know what I mean. To tap into that, you don’t have a choice but to tap into that as a centre because you can’t possibly sustain going all out all over the ice for 45 seconds at a time. Going all out like that all over the place puts you out of position.

If you really dumb down what I’m talking about, you’re always in that loaded stance/position even from a training perspective. In terms of that one thing, you watch Sidney Crosby and there’s no need to follow someone else. Sid is like a hybrid — his legs aren’t totally straight and they’re not totally bent either. He’s right in the middle so he’s always super strong and has the ability to go in either direction. He can turn, he can take off, he can slow down and he’s always in complete control of his body. He’s totally calm and he has the ability to turn it up and turn it down, and there’s no one like him that can do that.

So for a guy like me who’s trying to learn how to do that, you watch lots of video of him and I’m lucky I got to train with the same trainer he had and I try to emulate what he does. Obviously, he’s a different body type, but you can really learn a lot from watching a guy like that because it’s all patterns and he’s done it so many times in his life he’s not thinking. It’s automatic.

At centre ice, when you’re not thinking, it just comes natural. When you’re thinking too much, which is easy to do when you’re learning a new position, that’s when you get too robotic and you’re not yourself and you’re too jittery with the puck and not just smooth.
It’s starting to come more natural, whereas last year I was lucky to get off to a hot start and build from there. I was feeling good with good linemates and building confidence and just riding that wave.

SN: You had 50 more shots on net than in any other season. Is that a function of moving to the middle?

Domi: I think so. I’m not a guy who will score from 65 feet away. Just having that ability to be in movement and coming into the zone from both sides puts me in better shooting positions. From centre I was able to cut in from the side and get to the top of the circle and use those wristers and snappers which are more my strength. Getting into more scoring areas makes you want to use your shot more. And when you see the puck go in more, well, you shoot more.

SN: How do you get better at centre now?

Domi: You have to keep taking that next step. Last year was my first year, so it was a lot of stuff that I could have done a lot better. Winning battles in my own zone, being counted on in the last minute of a game for faceoffs and bearing down offensively is what I want to do. Again, I look at a guy like Sid and this is a guy who’s not only unbelievable when he has the puck but he defends against the other team’s top lines. When you can do that and not expend all your energy and still be able to go offensively, it’s unbelievable. It’s such an underrated skill.

So I think just tapping into that more, where you can defend and be smart about it and use your hockey IQ and still be able to go out and create scoring chances — that’s just growing up and being a year older and learning the game and the nooks and crannies of it. If I can do that, I’ll be better.

SN: Who do you turn to for advice in the room in that process? Is it a more complete centre like Phil Danault? Are you picking Shea Weber’s brain to see how defencemen react to what you’re trying to do?

Domi: I like asking everyone questions. Young guys, old guys, defence, wingers, whatever it is. Guys you play with, guys you play against who you might spend time with in the summer. I spent some time with Ryan O’Reilly talking about faceoffs. I’m buddies with Connor McDavid. Speaking to guys who are the best in the world at what they do, we have mutual respect and are happy to help each other out. And I learn a lot asking these guys questions. Sometimes I get a one-sentence answer from them and it’s still like, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way.’ The more input you can get, the better off you are. I’m trying to just collect as much knowledge as possible and that comes from your coaching staff, too.

It was great having Rick Tocchet in Arizona and seeing how much he wants to help his players out. And it’s no different with the guys we have here. Guys like Luke Richardson — even today I asked Luke, because we’re trying to develop more of a speed attack in the zone, I asked him, ‘As a defenceman, wouldn’t you want us to come at a higher speed so you can basically take our ice away as we’re skating towards you?’ And he said, ‘If you do it the right way you’re putting us on our heels versus this,’ and he gives you a whole different perspective on something as simple as that. That stuff is great.

Same thing with Kirk Muller. Same thing with Dominique (Ducharme), who played at a different level but played with guys like Marty St. Louis. You pick their brains and then you go home and digest it and learn as much as you can. That’s how you get better on a daily basis.

SN: How do you get better at taking faceoffs (Domi won just 44 per cent of his draws last year)?

Domi: I had never taken faceoffs before last year, so it was a whole new experience. It’s interesting. It’s not one of those things… they say you have to bear down, but if you try too hard on it all of a sudden a veteran steps in and snaps it back with ease and makes you feel silly about it. It’s all about balance and staying strong on your stick and one of those things where less is more. You have to be able to stay calm and focused in those situations and be ready to battle. It’s a crucial part of the game. As an offensive guy, you always want to start with the puck and that’s how you create. It’s harder to chase it. Faceoffs are a big part of the game and I just want to keep finding ways to get better at it.

At the end of the day, it’s repetition. That’s why a guy like Nate Thompson is so good at it. He’s probably taken thousands of them in this league. He just knows how to do it, knows what to do when he’s struggling, knows how to beat a righty, knows how to beat a lefty, knows how to beat a guy with a big blade or a guy with a small blade. Whatever it might be, he knows how to do it. All those little details you may not pick up on from up top (in the press box), you have to know it’s a craft.

I have a lot of respect for guys like Nate, guys like Anze Kopitar or O’Reilly who are so good at draws and good at all aspects of the game. I’m learning from them.

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