Welcome to this year’s edition of Can This Winger Play Centre?
When he was traded to Montreal, as is tradition, management were immediately asked about Max Domi’s potential as a centreman. The inquiry was legitimate as Domi spent a decently long stretch filling in down the middle for the Arizona Coyotes last season; around 26 games spanning from December to February.
The answer made it seem like the forward was brought in as a winger first and foremost, but Domi at centre wasn’t completely put off the table. In that optic, it remains quite interesting to project whether he could end up successfully pivoting a line after some expected shuffling from the coaching staff.
There are many examples of players who came through the Junior ranks as centres and were moved to the wing once their professional career started. At the next level, acting as a pivot is often reserved for stronger two-way players. This isn’t always as much of a requirement for productive centres in Junior; the best offensive players often find themselves down the middle to be as involved in the play as possible. It’s probably the reason why Jonathan Drouin was moved to centre in his last year with the Halifax Mooseheads.
Domi is not such an example.
He first came to the London Knights as a centre, but was moved to the wing after half a season when the team acquired Greg McKegg, a productive junior pivot. Centre was what Domi had known all his hockey career before that, but he adapted to playing wing and was drafted as such in 2013.
Last year was Domi’s first time playing centre in about seven years. This is an important consideration as this new position was quite different from what he had become used to.
He knew the duties from his young playing career, but the demands were much greater when facing the stronger and quicker players of the NHL. He also didn’t get much practice on the dot. Positions don’t matter as much in the offensive zone where pretty much all players are interchangeable. But in the defensive zone, forwards will often try to have the centre be the guy helping his defender down low and the wingers higher in the zone covering the opposition’s blue-liners. Some coaches (like Claude Julien) also put more emphasis on having the right players at the right place.
So when evaluating a player’s ability to play centre, a lot of emphasis is put on defensive play as this is where the responsibilities of the pivots mostly lie.
Some of the elements that make for a good centre away from the puck are:
- Urgency in a backchecking situation;
- Ability to recognize the defensive situation upon descending into the zone and covering the appropriate spot or opposing player;
- Acting as support in puck battles down low;
- Ability to play the defensive position of all four other players depending on the situation;
- Staying in between your man and the puck, and cutting passing lanes;
- Tying up your man while covering the slot when the puck moves to the point;
- Give the longest window possible to receive the puck in a breakout situation; staying low in the zone to help your defencemen start the transition.
There are finer details to all of this, but those are some of things that good centreman in the NHL do almost instinctively.
Surprisingly, considering his lack of recent experience, Domi did well on the ice in those aspects, even if the odds were stacked heavily against him. He had some rougher nights, but the experiment was relatively successful for Rick Tocchet, who chose to take an extended look at Domi in that position.
Let’s take a look at a couple of sequences that illustrate the demands of playing centre, and how Domi responded on the ice.
Domi is a good skater. This helped him a lot on the backcheck where he could recover on defence with hard strides after a change of possession.
In the clip below, you can see him take a quick peek to identify what kind of rush situation he is up against. He decides to skate and pressure the puck-carrier on the far boards, forcing a dump in the zone from the opposition with his backcheck.
After the dump-in, Domi makes the correct decision and defaults to the slot to protect the front of the net, recognizing that both his defenders descended below the goal line to battle for the puck, leaving the most important area unguarded.
As the puck is won by Minnesota, it becomes the job of Domi to pressure the puck-carrier away from his defenceman.
He displays good positioning doing it. He doesn’t go directly for the puck, but takes an inside approach to the opponent, meaning that he skates behind him to cut the possibility of the puck being cycled, or sent back down below the goal line to a teammate.
Domi makes the correct read and brushes the puck as it is dropped behind.
Immediately after, as he turns back to help his defence, he makes sure to take another peek at where his man is to make sure he remains in the passing lane, preventing a dangerous pass to the slot.
Soon after, there is another quick change of possession from Minnesota below the goal line. Domi once again takes the man who manages to escape with the puck and follows him tightly to the boards. After it is sent to the point and rimmed back down immediately, he follows his opponent back down to the slot.
He isn’t just tracking the puck like many forwards in the defensive zone, but is seen constantly checking where his man is. He is also tying his stick to eliminate him as a pass option, checking him a few times in his usual style.
This isn’t a perfect sequence, but it demonstrates a lot of good defensive habits and awareness of what is going on, plus an understanding of how to prevent the puck from getting to high-danger scoring areas.
This clip also starts with another good backcheck.
Domi stands in a supporting position on a late forecheck from the Coyotes. As he skates back through the neutral zone, he never manages to strip the attacker of the puck, but is relentless as he hunts him to his defensive end, trying to lift his stick multiple times and limiting the ease with which the opponent can make a play.
After a shot is deflected to the corner, Domi is forced to act on another opponent who has now received the puck below the goal line.
He is a tad late in his interception, but he uses his strength to his advantage. He puts his stick over the opponent’s and prevents him from reaching the puck. With a single push, he also brings himself in between his man and the puck, protecting it with his body while continuing to tie up his man.
This turns an unfavourable situation to his advantage. It allows him, with his defenceman, to double-team the next opponent below the goal line after leaving the first one behind with his physical play.
The puck springs loose, and as he is now in a good low position to retrieve it, he helps start the breakout before accelerating with his linemates to exit the zone.
Apart from good defensive habits, the most impressive quality of Domi in his defensive game is his ability to neutralize his opponent when the puck is in the vicinity.
Instead of trying to immediately take possession and risk a potential dangerous turnover, he uses his body and his stick to prevent the opponent from touching the puck, enabling his teammates to help organize a breakout, effectively winning the battle for his team. This extra unselfish effort turns a 50/50 situation into a positive play for his team.
Domi was moved to centre due to his tendency to be a pass-first player, which is often the primary identity of centremen around the league. It was an attempt to have him start producing again in a position where his playmaking could be used better after a production drought in the beginning of the season.
Unfortunately, despite the effort, he didn’t snap out of the cold streak. It could have been the extra responsibilities of the position, but it’s hard to know exactly what happened there due to other factors, notably his linemates.
He started the first few games being flanked by Christian Fischer and Clayton Keller. He soon had Zac Rinaldo, who is definitely not known for his offence, stapled to his wing along with players like Tobias Rieder who, while being a better offensive player than Rinaldo, is not a great producer either. The conditions did not favour a great offensive output from Domi and he was often on the wrong side of the shot differential during the experiment.
Would Max Domi at centre be an option worth exploring for Montreal?
While the offence didn’t live up to expectations for Domi in his time at centre, I think the newly acquired forward could be worth a look down the middle. He doesn’t represent an ideal fit there for the Habs, but with the team’s star prospect centers likely a year away from NHL time, he could be one worth exploring in the short term.
Domi’s play wouldn’t have him in Selke consideration by any means, but there were a lot of little things that he did well away from the puck during his stint, which was surprising after not playing the position for years. They added up to make him a relatively good contributor to his team’s defence, an opinion that was shared by his coach.
With patience to ease him into the role, he could evolve into a relatively solid two-way contributor at five-on-five for Claude Julien. He could also learn to be more comfortable balancing defensive duties and offensive creativity if used with more talented wingers regularly.
There is the fact that the Canadiens seem committed to Jonathan Drouin at center for this year. That being said, after watching both Drouin and Domi play down the middle, if I didn’t know their respective past, I would have guessed that Domi was the more experienced and natural pivot.
Drouin, despite very noticeable improvements toward the end of the year, still suffers from a lack of patience in his defensive game. This means that he has a tendency to forfeit defensive positioning in order to get an early jump on offence. He also tends to go straight for the puck in the defensive end, attacking players head-on without taking good angles to force them away from dangerous areas. This leads to him getting beat and extending the opposing team’s possession in his zone.
In terms of effort, physical play, ability to contain opponents, and even awareness, Domi seems like the superior defensive player. And that with fewer games to figure out the position.
This doesn’t mean that he will be the pivot of choice of the Habs this year, but if anything, Domi could represent a solution in case of injuries. In 2017-18, the Habs found themselves in a pinch and Paul Byron had to play a few games down the middle. This season, Domi will be a good option if that were to happen again.