As more and more of the Montreal Canadiens pile back into Montreal for the NHL’s return to play, there are a few pleasant surprises with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alex Belzile being healthy enough to resume practice after what were season-ending injuries. However, as of right now, one big name is currently missing from the optional practices. Max Domi. This isn’t through any fault of his own, as being a Type-1 Diabetic, Domi is at a much higher risk of serious complications related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While there is a higher chance in people who do not manage their diabetes well, the risk for someone like Domi is still high and could easily leave him in poor health if he were to contract the virus.
What this means for the Canadiens is that there is a potential chance they enter their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins without one of their leading scorers, and most dynamic players. In a bit of providence, so to speak, the Canadiens having their season go on pause when it did actually helps to mitigate Domi’s absence should he not be allowed to play or opts out. The long pause allowed a number of players to heal nagging injuries, or recover from serious ones they suffered during the year, giving Montreal a few options to fill that lineup spot.
The most obvious choice is the young Finnish centre who has returned to practice during the optional Phase Two. It was originally up in the air whether or not he would be able to participate after suffering a serious spleen injury just prior to the AHL’s season ending abruptly. He had surgery, returned to Finland to work on his recovery (where he also appeared to bulk up significantly), then made his return to Montreal with every intention of playing when the time came.
Of all the available options, Kotkaniemi is by far the best suited to take over the primary offensive role that Domi occupied. In his short AHL stint, the third-overall pick shone as an offensive producer alongside Charles Hudon, showcasing a great play-making IQ every single night. The confidence he built up during his time with the Laval Rocket will be crucial for the Canadiens if they’re looking to use this gifted opportunity to make a deep playoff run.
He’s more than capable of playing as a distributor in the offensive zone. Pairing him up with his fellow Finnish compatriots in Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia could go a long way towards making up for Domi’s absence, while adding some more defensive responsibility.
Jake Evans/Ryan Poehling
In a similar vein to Kotkaniemi, there are two young prospects that could slide into a bottom-six role at centre to help cover the loss of Domi. Both Poehling and Evans saw time at the NHL level with varying levels of success with Evans being the slightly more productive in less games. However, if this is the move then this line becomes more defensive in nature, as opposed to offensively inclined like a line headed by Kotkaniemi.
With the top two lines occupying the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin matchups, having a defensive third line feels a bit like a wasted chance to exploit some matchups lower in the lineup. While meaning no disrespect to both Evans and Poehling, asking them to take either one of those matchups to free up part of the top six is also asking for trouble.
Both are natural centres though and should Kotkaniemi not be fully ready, or if he is moved to the wing up the lineup, both Evans and Poehling could easily fill in this spot.
By far the longest shot to happen could be shifting Drouin back to centre to give the spot a bit of offensive punch in an exploitation role. As many remember, Drouin had a stint as a centre when he first arrived in Montreal, and while it wasn’t as successful as hoped, the team around him has better options to insulate his flaws.
It’s not the ideal choice given the circumstances, but if Claude Julien wanted to roll the dice on a line that is all offensive-zone starts to try and exploit a lineup deficiency, this could very well be his best ticket. When he was healthy this year, Drouin looked fantastic, acting as a dynamic playmaker and creating plenty of chances in the offensive zone. He wouldn’t be the top choice, but the abundance of wingers and Drouin having some experience in the middle of the ice gives the Canadiens some kind of option at least.
Without Domi in the lineup, there’s a fairly large hole to fill down the middle for the Canadiens heading into their series with the Penguins. While things could change in the coming days, the Habs’ coaching staff would be remiss to not have some contingency plans in place, even if they aren’t their top choices. It’s not an ideal situation, but missing one of your top offensive stars never really is to begin with.