Quick Shifts: Can Max Domi become Montreal’s ‘fan favourite’?

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi says by no means did he mean to hurt Aaron Ekblad with his punch, he feels bad about it, and he respects the league’s suspension decision; Also addresses Ekblad's comments about retribution.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. Between intense workouts during a training day in Toronto this summer, Darnell Nurse was asked about the off-season trade that brought his buddy Max Domi to Montreal.

“What a spot for him,” Nurse enthused.

“Fan favourite by the end of the year, for sure.”

I’m probably not the only one who watched Domi bare-knuckle an unsuspecting Aaron Ekblad square in the face during a meaningless exhibition game this week and flashed back to 2013. Remember new Maple Leaf David Clarkson hopping the boards and getting suspended for joining a pre-season line brawl for Toronto, his brand new employer?

Clarkson, too, was eager to prove himself a do-anything folk hero before the real action began.

“It’s bizarre,” Domi said in late August. “As soon as I got traded, it’s like I was a Montreal Canadien fan my whole life.

“Now I’m part of it. I dislike the Leafs, I guess. I kinda just flip-flopped, which is really ironic. It’s a huge honour. I couldn’t be more happy, more excited. It’s going to be pretty special playing that first game.”

During that conversation, he touted the bleu, blanc et rouge as “the best jerseys in the league” and the folks who fill the Bell Centre as “the best fan base in all of sports.”

All smiles and enthusiasm, Domi swore he’d sharpen up his French (not his best subject in school), and already he’s crafting bilingual posts on social media. He guaranteed he’d throw his all into any role or position he was put into. Wing, centre, whatever.

“I’m not the greatest on defence, but I’ll slide in there once in a while,” he offered. “And I think we’ve got the whole goalie thing locked up. We’re good there.”

Days later, he presented Drake with a backstage gift. A couple Toronto boys proudly posed with a Habs sweater like some bizarro version Roch Carrier’s children’s story:

Fan favourite? He’s trying hard.

Perhaps Ekblad should’ve been more prepared for that right. But what other “top-line centre” tries such a thing, in pre-season, against an elite opponent?

And what kind of league does so little to protect its stars in an exhibition contest?

Saying he didn’t intend to hurt a man he punched in the nose is not only laughable, it will make many question Domi’s sincerity in future scrums.

Ekblad called Domi’s five-game ban — which won’t stretch into the regular season, includes games he would not have played anyway, and won’t touch his wallet — “a gift.”

The NHL didn’t want to go beyond five games, because that would require an in-person hearing, and that would be too drastic a measure considering past reprimands for Domi’s offence. (Aside: Kudos to the on-ice officials for slapping on a match penalty.)

This is an opportunity missed. Suspending Domi for just one real game — a biggie: the season opener in Toronto — and taking a chunk of money out of his pocket would’ve signaled at least some punishment.

The incident has provided hot debate, and it was interesting to see former NHLers like Nick Kypreos, Willie Mitchell (Ekblad’s former landlord), and Mike Rupp all chime in:

Circle Dec. 28 on your calendar. We know the Panthers have, maybe in nostril blood, and we’d be shocked if George Parros isn’t in the building for that one.

2. It’s natural to connect Max’s actions and those of his (in)famous father, a fan favourite in his heyday. I get it: Hockey is fast and emotional and guys end up doing things they regret.

Back in early 2017, I spoke to Tie about Max’s fighting shortly after the kid busted his hand in a scrap with a fourth-liner. He ended up missing 23 games of his sophomore season.

“I didn’t have to say too much to Max. He knows,” Tie said, shaking his head. “You learn from experiences and try to take a positive out of it. It’s early in his career. It’s OK to play with an edge, but fighting isn’t part of the game.

“I don’t like it. I did enough fighting. I did it the most,” said Tie, summoning a chuckle. “So I did enough for our family and many more. He’ll just take the positive learning experience out of it. He’s just got to realize that he can’t put himself in that situation.”

3. San Jose has nine months to sell Erik Karlsson on flip-flops and all-you-can-grow beards and a minimum number of beat reporters. When Sharks smell blood, they chomp.

An eye-opening CBA nugget regarding a potential Karlsson extension option was brought to light by The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun.

Karlsson is destined to get a maximum-term deal, but San Jose can’t officially sign their new defenceman to an eight-year extension until the trade deadline passes on Feb. 25.

In comparison to Montreal’s dealing Max Pacioretty to Vegas, Ottawa’s return on the Karlsson deal was hampered because no extension could be reached with the Sharks. (The Feb. 25 clause was irrelevant in Pacioretty’s case because no one was signing him for eight years.)

Kudos to Doug Wilson for slamming on the full-court press. The GM was already in Ottawa waiting to dine with Karlsson after the trade call, the Sharks took out a full-page welcome ad in the local newspaper and paid for billboards.

The wooing is already in full swing, and it could make Karlsson a little more reluctant to pack up and move to, say, New York or Tampa Bay come July 1. Especially when the Sharks can dangle that extra year of commitment.

4. Projected to be a bubble team in the Pacific, Anaheim essentially stood pat while the other California powers sought major additions, San Jose with Karlsson and L.A. with Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Ducks’ fate rests on the effectiveness of Corey Perry and the arthritic hip of Ryan Kesler, who won’t be ready for opening night and whose absence from nearly half of 2017-18 was a significant blow.

“It was big. Going in, I didn’t know much about it,” explains Adam Henrique, the man right below Kesler on Anaheim’s centre depth chart.

“Once I got there, I could see how much his leadership and how much his role influences that team. I just hope everything is progressing well because he’s a vital part of how that team is built, how the team plays.”

Wanting to switch topics with Henrique, I ask him to name the Duck who most surprised him as a newcomer, expecting some insight into one Anaheim’s younger guns.

“Ryan Kesler,” Henrique circled back. “I was lucky I didn’t have to play against him much in the East. Just to see his commitment, how he takes care of himself and how much pride he has in putting in the work to be ready with the injuries, it means that much more with everything that’s going on.”

The Ducks are planning a more careful and diligent approach with Kesler’s pain threshold this season. They’ll back off his workload when his hip hurts. The good news is, Kesler couldn’t even lift weights in the summer of 2017, and this summer he was back to doing squats.

5. Senators coach Guy Boucher referenced the Maple Leafs when explaining Ottawa’s decision to not rush to name a captain. We suspect if Mark Stone was signed beyond June, he’d be the easy successor to Karlsson.

“Oh, he’s huge. He’s the catalyst. We’ve got Dutchy [Matt Duchene] and we [had] Karl, but when you really look at the game, Stoner’s the guy who rights the ship offensively when we’re having any kind of trouble,” says Bobby Ryan, who believes Stone can still be a powerful voice in the Sens room despite his expiring contract.

“I think it works for right now, for both sides. You just hope it doesn’t become a distraction for him throughout the year, but he seems ahead of that stuff.”

6. Of the backlash to Boucher comparing prospect Alex Formenton’s speed to that of Connor McDavid, Mike Modano put it most succinctly:

There is a distinction that must be made between simply skating fast without the puck and being able to operate and make plays while cruising at that speed.

But Boucher isn’t the only one drawing a parallel to that guy in Alberta.

I asked Stone which Sens rookie stands out, and he immediately brought up the kid whom GM Pierre Dorion has pegged as a top-six talent.

“You’re gonna notice Formenton when he’s on the ice. He’s the fastest,” Stone said. “I mean, McDavid’s fast, but honestly I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody faster than this kid.”

7. Preferring to focus on what Ottawa has instead of what it’s lost, Boucher won’t dwell on the Karlsson trade. Having coached the likes of Sidney Crosby and Martin St. Louis, he did offer this on what the EK65 experience was like:

“All the high-end guys are special, but they’re all different personalities. The one thing they all have: they want to be the best.

“When you want to be the best, you have a certain attitude and do certain things other people don’t do. Erik Karlsson was one of those guys who knew he could take the game. You could feel it. You could sense it.

“That’s what he had, and I’m sure he’s going to bring that with his new team. He’s definitely one of the top players in the world.”

8. Pre-season clips of 2018 draft steals Elias Pettersson and Rasmus Dahlin got you salivating?

Don’t forget about last year’s No. 1 overall, Nico Hischier.

“The biggest impact on my season was being able to play with him all season long,” says Hart champ Taylor Hall.

“If he was playing in Toronto or a big market, that would [increase] his spotlight. He’d have a bigger name, a lot more recognition, certainly a lot more Calder votes than he had.”

Despite running a top line on a playoff team, Hischier finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting, without a single first-place ballot.

“He had 52 points as an 18-year-old centreman, and us playing together, we played the top lines each and every night. I’m proud to be his teammate, I’m proud to play on a line with him, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the evolution of him.”

Hall figures Hischier will be bigger, more mature, and have a better handle on managing his energy this winter.

“It’s a tough schedule [in the NHL],” Hall says. “He comes from Europe, where you don’t play 90 games in minor hockey like we did growing up. I still think he’s getting used to that schedule.”

9. Jake Gardiner was all set to drive to practice this week when wife Lucy went into labour a week earlier than planned.

The Maple Leafs defenceman is now the happy, if overtired, new father of baby Henry.

“We had no idea what we were doing right away. Brought the kid home [Thursday] and it was pretty interesting,” says Gardiner, who is leaning on both grandmas during these tricky early days.

“You’re not sleeping, there’s that. You just feel proud that you brought a kid in the world. It’s a pretty cool experience, a day I’ll definitely never forget, and every day is exciting.”

Gardiner’s coach, Mike Babcock, dropped some Sasky wisdom about dad life.

“That first little while, she’s a grind to say the least,” Babcock recalls. “When you got married, you realized it was just datin’ with rings on. When you have your first child, it changes life for the better forever.”

10. Among the 31 NHL goaltenders who started the majority of their team’s games in 2017-18, none posted a worse save percentage than Ottawa’s Craig Anderson.

If the depleted Senators are to have any chance, the veteran must bounce back. Crazy thing about the 37-year-old’s numbers is that they yo-yo every year, a dependable pattern of up and down that stretches back nearly 10 seasons. The consistency of his inconsistency is something to behold. The trend is no trend.

History tells us, then, that Anderson should return to the .926 range.

“I never spent a second worrying about Andy this summer. He’s coming back ready to play,” asserts teammate Bobby Ryan. “Last season was an oddball one for us, where we took a major step backwards, and Andy was a part of that, but we all were. He’s probably one of my closest friends on the team, and I never spent a single second worrying he’d come back and be ready to go.”

11. Another Atlantic Division ‘tender with question marks is Carter Hutton. Enjoying an excellent year as Jake Allen’s backup in St. Louis, he will finally get a shot to be a true No. 1 in Buffalo. Starter Hutton, anyone!? (*ducks tomatoes*)

The buyer beware on Hutton is that he’s accustomed to playing behind elite blue lines — something absent in Buffalo, even with the addition of Dahlin.

Goalie stats can be skewed depending on the strength of the defences they stand behind, and Hutton knows he has operated behind two good ones in Nashville and St. Louis.

“A little more size [in St. Louis], bigger bodies net-front battling with guys. In Nashville, they were a bit smaller. They had guys who could really wheel,” Hutton said. “But I’ve been very fortunate to have good D cores who do a good job battling on rebounds and eliminating second chances.”

The more inexperienced Buffalo D won’t afford him that luxury.

12. Tweet of the Week:

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