My main complaint with Max Domi since the start of these playoffs, and really since he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in 2018, has been his inability to blend in with teammates. Domi is Domi. He is a creative, shifty, and talented forward, one of the top passers on the team. But you either build a line around him or his name doesn’t appear on the scoresheet.
Domi creates matchup problems for the coaching staff. First, he is a below-average defensive player. His tendency to tiptoe toward the attack in defensive situations makes it hard for Claude Julien to pair him with some of the otheroffensive players on the team. Those other players, Jonathan Drouin namely, don’t necessarily cheat slightly offensively in the same way, but they are overloaded quite easily in their own end. Adding a shaky defensive variable — Domi — makes it more susceptible to a grave mistake, like leaving an attacker in the middle of the slot.
Second, Domi plays his own particular brand of offence. He worked well with a player like Andrew Shaw because of his skill, intensity, and responsibility, but most of all because of his complementary inside game.
Shaw drove the net. He pushed back the line of defence off the rush to create space for Domi to criss-cross underneath and find scoring plays. In the offensive zone, Shaw acted as a puck magnet. He caught the passes that Domi consistently sprung toward the blue paint while skating on the periphery, passes that slid through multiple players and were often sent without looking; the new centreman simply knew that his partner would somehow be on the receiving end.
From Andrew Shaw (#65) ● ALL 19 Goals 2018-19 Season (HD)
Other players on the Canadiens can act as a Shaw-like presence to Domi, like Artturi Lehkonen. But it’s the playoffs. Those forwards are occupied with shutting down the best lines of the other team, and that’s not a role Domi has shown a propensity for.
So, after a few days of mentally moving his pieces up and down, which likely gave him more than a few headaches, Julien settled for a strategy. He preferred security and slid down his most production forward from just a year ago to the fourth line, giving him a rotation of Jordan Weal, Alex Belzile and Dale Weise as his supporting cast.
Some of those players have an inside game, but they lack complementary skill, speed, and the ability to quickly make and read plays under pressure to advance the attack. So Domi found himself on a island. He tried to manufacture as many scoring chances as he could with solo efforts, garnering the limited results we saw.
On Wednesday, however, something seemed to have changed in Domi’s approach. Not a seismic shift — no such thing can happen in a week — but he showed more effort to make his line work, to have it create offence as a unit.
This shift stood out:
Domi immediately took hard strides towardsthe bottom of the defensive zone after losing the faceoff. He placed himself in position to support his defenceman and even went for an extra effort, lining himself up with the course of a Flyers’ F1 forechecker. The pick bought an extra half-second for Xavier Ouellet. who descended to pick up the puck on the back wall.
The play then transitioned to the other half of the ice. Victor Mete engaged himself in a new battle. Domi swept in, took the puck, and connected with Belzile, who redirected a pass back to Ouellet. The defenceman activated in the rush, and who came up behind him, flying up ice? Domi again. He didn’t stop to glide at the blue line to arrive as a trailer in the offensive zone. He didn’t level with his teammate to ask for a pass, and he didn’t cut behind him, looking for a drop-play. Seeing Ouellet going for a dump-in, the centreman blew past him and past the defenders to win the puck on the retrieval.
The dump-in was not the best play in this situation, and Domi knew that. But he still harmonized the play of his teammates. He followed it and then improved it with his own.
The forward got to the puck first ... and then started making typical Domi choices: sending blind passes repeatedly, hoping a teammate was standing there. Still, he kept his motor churning throughout the sequence, made a creative lob-pass to Mete on the blue line, and connected once with Belzile for a prime scoring chance.
The line of Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi that Julien put together later in the game can definitely do more damage than the original third line featuring Joël Armia. Unfortunately, that is true at both ends of the ice.
There is a ton of overlap in the play styles of Domi and Drouin. and that means they can concentrate their force in certain offensive sequences when they get space, but also that they wouldn’t be able to cover the array of game situations that a partnership with Armia could.
Perhaps Domi’s lineup spot should be as a secret weapon, deployed when the Canadiens need to sacrifice some defence for offence. The current lineup proved that it could match the Flyers, and last night's game could have gone either way. But if Domi is to be moved up a trio for the next game, his willingness to harmonize the plays of teammates, to support and improve them, in Game 1 gives me more confidence that he could make a positive overall impact.