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Max Domi has panned out better in Montreal than anyone could have expected

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He always had plenty of ability, and the stars have aligned for a perfect Canadiens debut.

Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Seasons of 52, 38 (shortened by injury), and 45 points never suggested that Max Domi could be a game-changer. Even the advanced stats didn’t paint the picture of an underrated forward, one who could have been misused and represented hidden value. In fact, Domi finished most of his previous seasons in the negative relative to teammates in shot metrics and high-danger scoring chances.

On paper, he simply didn’t appear to be an offensive leader.

But, fast forward to today, and Max Domi is having an incredible start with the Montreal Canadiens. His passing skills and a return of his shooting abilities have translated to high totals. And a bonus: he seems to have lit a fire under Jonathan Drouin, who is also playing up to his potential.

He might not maintain his current point-per-game pace, but at the very least, a career year is very much in the works for him.

This is what Montreal hoped for in their trade for the ex-Coyotes forward: a fresh start to give Domi an occasion to perform at a new level. It was something he wasn’t able to do in his time in Arizona, and there were a few elements the team could bank on this summer to see this success materialize.

The first one was Domi’s propensity to rise to the moment, fueled by the passion surrounding him. Marc Bergevin himself saw a Junior-aged forward be a key player for Team Canada in the 2015 IIHF World U20 Championship. Domi scored 10 points in seven games, three of those when he battled for gold on the last night of the tournament. He was the motor of the team in many of the games, including on the Bell Centre ice where he can now hear his name chanted again.

Domi might not have had the occasion to showcase the same intensity in his years in Arizona, but his strong work ethic remained even when things weren’t working out offensively for him on the ice. He was always quick, played a 200-foot game, and hunted the puck after it was lost, not giving up until it was recovered.

This, in turn, made him quite a solid centre despite lacking experience at the position.

I wrote an article this summer analyzing Domi’s stretch as a centreman last season, and his potential to be one in the long run. It concluded that the diminutive forward was effective pivoting his own line in the defensive aspects of the game. He hadn’t been asked to play the position since his first season in the OHL, but he still looked more comfortable there than Jonathan Drouin, who had just played it for a full season, and also more recently than Domi in Junior.

The Habs could then realistically project Domi as a solid pivot if given more time down the middle. It’s likely why Claude Julien stuck with the idea even through the suspension that kept Domi out of all but one pre-season game.

The main issue with Domi down the middle last season was that he didn't produce, putting up even lower numbers there than on the wing. But this is another example where context matters.

For the majority of the games when he was slotted down the middle, the Coyotes’ coaching staff stapled Zac Rinaldo — a player not exactly known for his skills — to his wing. His other linemate was often either Tobias Reider or Christian Fischer. This was a way to shield Domi against harder matchups and to give him support in his play away from the puck, but his offensive game suffered as a consequence. Domi, an offensive player at heart, wasn’t going to snap out of a cold streak in those conditions.

There lay another opportunity for the Habs. If Domi could handle the defensive side of the game without being anchored, then a fresh set of wings could potentially lift him up, and the team with him.

This is what we have seen happen this season. The newly converted centreman has been able to transform defence into offence, and shines due to the creativity and talent of the players surrounding him.

His 13th goal of the season on Tuesday was a great example of that. As David Schlemko turned the puck over in his end, forcing the Habs to regroup into a defensive formation, Domi descended to support his defenceman battling for recovery, giving out a couple of cross-checks for good measure. When the puck sprung loose, the centreman didn’t immediately flee the zone, but read the breakout, timing himself to accelerate into a pass from his winger and get on the attack, sliding the puck over to Drouin.

At the other end of the ice, Drouin made a beautiful misdirection play and dropped a pass back to Domi, who showed the shooter he can be. He caught the puck, over-skated it to add power to his release, and picked his spot blocker side on Craig Anderson.

The trade that brought Domi to the Canadiens was a disputable move for many. But to be fair, very few, even the most optimistic, would have predicted a start like this for the ex-Arizona Coyotes player.

The performance of the team’s top centre must surprise even the Habs’ management. I don’t think Marc Bergevin envisioned 30 points in 29 games to start 2018-19 for Domi, even knowing where and how the play of the forward could be improved. It would have been completely unrealistic for Montreal’s brass to expect this kind of production, this early.

There is another factor in most trades that is not often talked about, and that is simply luck. Some players mesh really well with teams on arrival, and others don’t. And that all depends on a multitude of factors, not all within the control of the team, like injuries and adaptability, not just to the locker room and the system, but also to a new, different life in another city.

When trading for younger players, it is also a gamble on an unfinished product. It comes down to hoping the player reaches a new level in their fresh start in the organization.

‘‘Sorry, I guess things just didn’t work out’’ can’t ever be a good excuse for a general manager. They are hired to have all the solutions and because they are supposed to have a better grasp on everything related to the players they trade away and acquire. Yet sometimes, "it didn't work out" really is what it comes down to.

So when a player immediately smashes expectations, like Max Domi has, it is fun, and not just for the fans. I bet there are a lot more smiles from the Habs’ management now than there were at this time last year.