It can take a while for an organization to fix a need in its lineup. Just look at the Montreal Canadiens’ elusive search for top-six centre that spanned a decade. The team lacked both the draft capital to select their impact centreman and the player surplus to trade for the pivotal piece. They were forced to make the best of what they had.
Now, compared to a few years ago, Montreal is flush with assets. Their reset has given them one of best prospect pools in the league, both in terms of depth and quality. Fresh young talents have pushed out other players to the edge of the lineup. As a result, the Habs no longer have to amputate a key part of their team to plug a hole elsewhere; they can trade from their excess to reinforce their core. They can compete with other organizations on the market, outbid them, and still come out ahead because even if the pieces moved have high value in a vacuum, they aren’t as valuable to the organization as they are to their trade partner, nor as valuable as the potential return.
In the trade for Josh Anderson, Montreal sacrificed a productive player in Max Domi, but one who no longer fit. All the centremen ahead of him are either more effective at the position or project to be. They more often play the F1 defensive position; they read and shut down plays with more ease, and they arguably play a more diverse game.
Domi clashed stylistically. Montreal isn’t Toronto or Tampa Bay; the Habs play a straightforward brand of offence. Players don’t keep the puck on their stick for long and don’t create elaborate exchanges. They make a couple of give-and-gos and beat defenders to the net. Domi adapted to the Montreal game a bit better in his first year with the Canadiens, but was also given wingers like Andrew Shaw who went the extra mile for him, who dove into the middle of traffic to catch his passes.
Domi can carry a line to the offensive zone with his changes of speed and directions, and rapid-fire stickhandling, but once he gets there, if he can’t immediately score off the rush, he runs into trouble. Off the cycle, Domi can’t really elevate teammates or make them better scorers by manipulating defenders to move them out of passing lanes. His wingers have to be in the right spot at the right time to connect with him. Otherwise, the puck often moves to the control of the other team.
This posed problems for Montreal’s coaching staff. Domi needed specific talents around him, like a second rushing threat in Jonathan Drouin. But when those were given, the opposition also matched their own against the centreman, exposing the defensive flaws in his game, his blind spots, his urges to move his skates toward the offensive zone, and his tendencies to over-correct when it happened.
Ironically, in an alternate universe, Domi and Josh Anderson would probably have made an impressive duo. The hard skills of the winger would have helped the converted centreman. Domi lost that kind of support when the rundown Shaw was traded back to the Chicago Blackhawks. But adding Anderson without subtracting Domi wasn’t going to happen.
Domi can piece together another 72-point season if he finds the perfect line-fit. Maybe he gets it in Columbus. Even if John Tortorella has an iron grip on his players in the neutral and defensive zone, the coach allows the offensive game to flow. Domi could mesh with Cam Atkinson or a high-profile free-agent acquisition. Or maybe his ears ring constantly from Tortorella’s yelling about the forward’s defensive game.
One way or another, due to the evolution of the team in the last year, it was hard to envision Domi returning to his first-season form in Montreal.
Anderson will not fully replace the centreman’s production over the last two years, but if fully healthy — an important factor — the winger gives the Habs the physical and off-puck presence that was missing for their style of play. Anderson can fit on a variety of line combinations and complements both their playmaking centres and even their more defensively inclined one, which wasn’t necessarily the case with Domi.
A balanced lineup, diverse in its type of talents, can prop up the game of individual players. It can provide the team with more wins than a skilled player who’s production is capped by bottom-of-the-lineup minutes.