TORONTO — The first goal Max Domi scored in Scotiabank Arena while decked out in Maple Leafs blue was set up by the same man now occupying his father Tie’s old stall, the one in the far corner of the home dressing room, nearest to the showers and the trainer’s table.
“Willy’s in my dad’s spot,” a smiling Domi said. “Hilarious.”
That would be converted centreman William Nylander, who assisted on Domi’s second preseason strike Monday, giving the Leafs a 3-1 second-period lead in their first exhibition game pitting NHL-level talent against the same.
Toronto led 4-2 in the third period, too, seemingly gripping the night in stranglehold.
Yet the pre-Leafs found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, allowing the rebuilding Montreal Canadiens to score thrice in less than seven minutes, thanks to some scattered defensive-zone play and a stubborn opponent.
“Well, hopefully they leave pretty bitter about how the game finishes up,” criticized head coach Sheldon Keefe, following a 5-4 overtime loss. “Whether it’s preseason or not, you got a lead, you gotta take care of the game and win the game.
“All things you’d like to think, whether it’s preseason or not, that we’re past a lot of that stuff — and we weren’t tonight.”
We won’t waste time ripping a veteran group for blowing a pair of two-goal leads in a meaningless contest.
We will touch on the meaningful play of Domi, who has quickly made his presence known on the scoresheet and quote sheet since signing with Dad’s old club and taking a nameplate in the same dressing room he used to wander around as a child after morning skates.
“It’s pretty surreal,” the 28-year-old says. “Growing up [here], the building hasn’t changed much, the staff is all pretty similar, and the locker room is almost identical. It definitely feels like home.”
So much so, Domi says the butterflies of seeing a Maple Leaf on his chest have dissipated a little since his decision to make Toronto his seventh NHL stop. Both in how he plays — in the thick of scrums and scoring chances — and how he carries himself around teammates, fans, and media members, Domi bounces around Leafs HQ with comfort and confidence.
“He plays with his heart and soul,” says Mitch Marner, Domi’s reunited London Knights teammate. “I’ve seen it firsthand. He’s a helluva guy to have on your team. He’s a frisky little guy out there and likes to be in the mix. He’s going to bring a lot of character, a lot of speed, a lot of great plays, and he’ll be fiery out there too.”
Captain John Tavares describes the 5-foot-10, 194-pound boulder of man as “a fire hydrant.” But when the puck drops, Domi is more pyromaniac than wet blanket.
“Fire hydrant? That checks out, for sure,” Domi said. “Not the tallest guy, but pretty wide, I guess, so that makes sense. That’s a nice compliment. Thanks, Johnny.”
Domi credits his stubby strength to wall squats and genetics, describing the 5-foot-10 Tie as “pretty much a square.”
The versatile forward has been smart enough to spin his low centre of gravity to his advantage. He’s strong on the puck and determined to retrieve it, even if that means inflicting a stick infraction.
“A lot’s been made about the competitiveness and being in your face and all that which is part of his personality,” Tavares said. “But he’s a playmaker. He’s extremely quick and very strong.”
Keefe is careful not to downplay the talent of a two-time 20-goal scorer and onetime 72-point man.
“But he’s faster and more skilled than I thought,” the coach said. “And that’s been exciting.”
Domi in the box
All the benefits Domi brings in personality and scrappiness comes with a by-product: penalties.
He’s certainly no Tie — the senior Domi holds the Leafs’ franchise record with 2,265 penalty minutes — but Max has earned a penalty in each of his three pre-season games with Toronto and is coming off a career-high 82 PIM last season.
“[My dad] spent a lot more time than I’ll ever spend there, but you don’t want to take those penalties,” Domi said.
In 2022-23, Domi committed eight more penalties than he drew, while the most penalized Leaf last season was Michael Bunting at 103 PIM, followed by Mark Giordano at only 53 PIM. (And because Bunting ranked among the league leaders in penalties drawn, he was a plus-1 in the category.)
Despite his frequent trips to the bin, Domi says his relationship with the men in stripes has improved over his eight seasons touring the league.
“Referees are probably the most important part of our game, really,” Domi says. “They’re all great dudes, but they have a tough job. They have the toughest job, because they have to be the bad guy in every situation. No one wants to get on them, but it’s the nature of the game.
“As you get older, you start to realize that if you cut them some slack, they treat you with a little more respect too. They are senior to all of us, so you gotta respect them. You show that respect, and it comes full circle.”
Not that Domi’s feistiness isn’t refreshing, but we expect his teammates will need to bail him out for his aggressiveness on many a night.
“It is a fine line,” Keefe said. “I’d rather have to tone a guy down than kick him in the ass to get him going.”
Auston Matthews, penalty killer
Through the entire 2022-23 campaign, Auston Matthews spent a grand total of three minutes and 29 seconds killing penalties. Through his two pre-season games this fall he has already trumped that with three minutes and 30 seconds of 4-on-5 play, routinely factoring into D-zone turnovers that lead to quality chances on the man-disadvantage.
“It’s one of the best players in the world, right? So, I mean, you want him on the ice as much as possible,” Domi said.
Keefe sounds more measured about the experiment: “A couple of his best scoring opportunities tonight came while shorthanded, so that’s positive. But pulling the puck out or net while shorthanded is not a good thing.”
Roster trims, Buds bolt town
The first 12 days of Leafs training camp featured a bloated roster, two full practice groups, plus a third development group.
Well, GM Brad Treliving’s first round of cuts arrived Monday afternoon, as 27 players were assigned to the AHL Marlies, none a surprise.
A more NHL-ready group will travel north Tuesday to Gravenhurst, Ont., fleeing the city on a two-hour bus ride for its annual team-bonding excursion, followed by a practice Wednesday.
“Yeah, it’s awesome. I mean, you can do all the team-building you want at the rink, but I think when you go away from the rink and you implement that stuff, it just takes you to a whole other level,” Domi said. “That’s just how you build teams quick.”
Impressive prospect Fraser Minten will join the NHLers on the roadie, but 18-year-old Easton Cowan will remain in Toronto to train. He hasn’t been cut just yet.
Outside of a few resting players — Calle Järnkrok (neck), John Klingberg (upper body), Mark Giordano (maintenance), and backup Joseph Woll (illness) — Treliving gave the home fans their first preview of a legitimate NHL lineup Monday:
Bertuzzi – Matthews – MarnerDomi – Nylander – Robertson Knies – Tavares – Lafferty Gregor – Kämpf – Reaves
Rielly – BrodieMcCabe – Liljegren Benoit – Kokkonen
“You don’t want to be hurt during training camp, but it is what it is,” says Järnkrok, whose absence opened another audition for Nick Robertson. “I’ll try and make the best of it when I get back.”