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Micro Analysis: The Habs’ young centres continue to adapt their play

Both Max Domi an Nick Suzuki showed progress on Thursday night.

Montreal Canadiens v Calgary Flames Photo by Terence Leung/NHLI

Max Domi looks to be regaining his effectiveness in the last few games, chaining a few good performances together.

We heard the usual lingo to explain his recent struggles, that he was “gripping sticks too tight” or needed to “simplify his game.” For me, the main explanation for Domi’s struggles since the start are too many hope plays. They are the deadly sins of the playmaker.

Those are plays that have barely any chance of succeeding. They are either rushed or predictable. They are still present in recent games, a sign that he isn’t completely out of the woods yet, even if he is on the right track.

Domi blindly sends the puck to the slot a lot. He hopes it connects with the stick of a teammate. Those Hail Mary passes are always destined for someone standing around the blue paint, but there’s usually also a couple of opposing sticks in the way. His spinning-on-himself or behind-the-back feeds don’t have the needle-point precision to thread through those obstacles.

Other times, he does face his target, but lacks deception. Everyone in the building knows where the puck is going. So it’s expected that NHL defenders have an easy time deflecting his passes aside.

He also often stops in the offensive zone, planting his feet to look at the offensive picture. By doing that, defenders can easily account for his positioning and concentrate on taking away the stick of teammates.

Domi has the right mindset: he wants to set up one-timers in the slot. They have a high chance of going in, and on top of that, he’s paired with capable shooters in Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen. But he can’t force those plays when they aren’t there.

When he doesn’t have space, he needs to move the puck to open teammates to keep the offensive play alive until he gets a better occasion. And when he does have room to manoeuvre, he needs to use it to hold on to possession, activate his feet, and elude opponents to put stress on the defence — the more it moves, the more it breaks down.

Here are other sequences where Domi has done those things well in recent games:

The centreman usually shows more patience off the rush. In some sequences above, he weaves into space, slows down — but doesn’t stop — and challenges nearby defenders to attract their attention. He gives time for teammates to sneak into scoring positions.

Domi’s movement at the edge of defenders’ sticks makes it hard for them to keep track of both him and the off-puck threats. Opponents get dragged out of position and it allows the playmaker to connect with a friendly stick through traffic.

This sequence especially deserves highlighting:

Domi gets the puck on the wall. He sees Armia standing in front of the opposing cage, but Domi doesn’t force a pass. He uses the space in front of him to instead attack the net. The threat of the pass forces defenders back, and creates a great scoring chance.

The Habs are starting to win games again, but if they are to win a playoff spot, they will need Domi to continue displaying sequences like the one above. They will need him to let go of his bad habits to become his best self, the creative, patient, always-moving skater he was last season.

Nick Suzuki’s inside game: Part II

I talked about Nick Suzuki net-front game in a recent article. It was mostly in response to Claude Julien’s comment on the rookie, that he needed get inside the slot to score.

To summarize the piece in a few words, while Suzuki is primarily a playmaker who likes to operate inside open space, it was fair of Julien to say that there are other ways he can generate offence, one of them going to the net. Right now, as he is paired with Nick Cousins, and Cousins play of choice is to attack the blue paint, most pucks will also end up there.

Suzuki got the coach’s message. And more than that, he showed he learned his lesson in the same week.

Watch these two contrasting plays:

The first one is from the game in Detroit in which Suzuki got called out for his performance.

He wanted to get the puck in space and cheat toward the boards for a pass there, but Cousins immediately shot at the net. From his outside position, the rookie could only reach with his backhand to try for a low-percentage deflection.

This play contrasts with the one from last night. Suzuki immediately moved to the blue paint as his teammate circled the offensive zone. He won inside positioning against the defender, positioned himself at the near post and presented his forehand at an angle to spring the puck upstairs on the goalie. Perfect execution.

Claude Julien was also impressed. The first part of the quote below is definitely a nod to his tying goal, and Suzuki’s ability to respond to criticism.

An ability to learn is what earns you the trust of coaches. Suzuki is intelligent, and doesn’t make mistakes twice. He adapts his play to best fit his linemates and the needs of the team. This quality will give him a long and productive NHL career.