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Could Max Domi maintain his offensive impact in a move back to the wing?

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Breaking down how Domi found success last season, and how much his position had to do with it.

2019 Player Media Tour Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Last year, before the start of training camp, I analyzed the possibility of moving Max Domi to center for the coming season. The article may have been somewhat prophetic, but it also very much undersold the converted winger’s ability to generate offence from the middle.

In his first season as a pivot, a position that he only played for half a season in Major Junior, Domi thrived. He led the team in production and set career highs in both assists and goals, all of that on a new team and in a new environment.

The former Coyote became part of the answer to the team’s long search for top-six centres. Now, just one year later, the landscape of Montreal’s organization is changing. Recently drafted players are blossoming, and some of them project to be effective pivots.

Like he has at numerous times in his young career, it’s possible that Jesperi Kotkaniemi surprises this season and establishes himself in a top-six role. There is also Ryan Poehling pushing for his own roster spot. Young players are playing bigger and bigger roles in the NHL every year, and there’s no exception in Montreal.

The organization might not be immediately confronted with the idea of reworking a lineup that had relative success last year, but questions about the personnel will likely arise soon — sooner than many expect, as prospects show themselves capable of playing against tougher competition.

Claude Julien looks for a strong 200-foot game in his centremen. Domi proved to be adequate defensively in his first year as a centre, but his career as of now suggests he doesn’t represent the ideal Patrice Bergeron model the head coach has been accustomed to. That’s a model Kotkaniemi and Poehling could better imitate with their skill sets.

Those factors make you think a move back to the wing could be in the cards for Domi in the near future. The question is: could he maintain his career-high production if he switches positions?

Creating offence

I went through some of his points from last year to get a clearer picture of how he scored them. Did the centre position have an impact on his offensive generation? It led me to push the research into half a season, and then (since I was already deep into the rabbit hole) to go over all of Domi’s scoring plays.

This is far from a perfect investigation. The season is more than just highlights; the role of confidence and teammates are difficult to measure, and it’s also quite hard to define what constitutes a ‘‘point obtained from the center position’’ due to how positionally fluid hockey has become. So I limited myself to qualifying as ‘‘center points’’ the faceoffs with Domi at the dot that led to goals, and the times he skated in the F1 role in the defensive zone a few seconds prior to recording a point.

The final number is simultaneously not a lot and a lot more than I expected.

Analysis of Max Domi’s production

Scoring play # of points % of points (5-on-5) % of total points
Scoring play # of points % of points (5-on-5) % of total points
Powerplay 11 - 15.3
Overtime 3 - 4.2
O-zone possession 14 24.6 19.4
Turnover (NZ, OZ) 13 22.8 18.1
N-zone regroup 7 12.3 9.7
Faceoff as center 2 3.5 2.8
Breakout as center 12 21.1 16.7
Faceoff as winger 1 1.8 1.4
Breakout as winger 9 15.8 12.5
O-zone possession: goals from the puck being cycled through the offensive zone; Turnover: puck changes hands abruptly either in the offensive zone or the neutral-zone; Neutral-zone regroup: players reenter the offensive zone after exchanging the puck through the neutral zone or at the top of the defensive zone; Faceoff as center: Player is on the dot; Faceoff as winger: Player is on the flank; Breakout as center: Player clearly occupies the F1 position; Breakout as winger: Player clearly occupies the F2 or F3 position;

At least a quarter of Domi’s production at five-on-five came from those instances last year. I hesitated on adding a few more points to the category as I wasn’t sure about the specific directives given to centres in Montreal. Is the centre asked to remain higher in the offensive zone with possession? To be the lowest man on the forecheck? To be swinging low to take the puck from defencemen on neutral-zone regroups? Or do positions always go with the flow of the play in those occurrences? Considering the “old-school” mentality of Julien when it comes to relying on his pivots, it is very possible that other fixed assignments directly led to more ‘‘centre points’’ for Domi, but I chose to leave those in the other general sections due to uncertainty. So the final number remains conservative.

Looking at the statistics, there are a few faceoff plays that resulted in a goal for Domi, but those aren’t as interesting. What grabs attention is how he took advantage of the runway he got out of the defensive zone to repeatedly score off the rush. Eight of his 28 goals involved him doing just that. It’s an important amount for a player who has a pretty good shot, but previously failed to reach the 20-goal plateau.

Those off-the-rush goals can be broken down in two different categories.

In one of them, Domi pushed the pace. Last season, his speed worked very well inside this specific directive from the coaching staff. When possible, players were asked to jump up earlier and further up than normal in the defensive zone on breakouts. The long chips to the centreman, swinging toward the top of the zone from his low defensive position, led to scrambling opponents, odd-man rushes, and a few goals.

Domi’s main goal-scoring came from his speed behind the puck even more. He followed a few steps behind the rush of his wingers escaping the defensive zone with possession. Stick on the ice on the second wave of attack, he found open space due to the defensive gap created by his linemates and then placed himself in a drop-pass lane to spring the puck on net upon receiving.

On other sequences, simply coming in late in the offensive zone gave him great opportunities to pick up a loose puck and find the back of the net by going through the defence. His speed proved to be too much for the flatfooted defence, who failed to keep track of him and deny him access to the slot.

The switch to a new position could have been the main reason Domi found more shots last season (about 0.55 shots per game more than his previous best). While positioned on the wing, his focus was probably to set up teammates attacking with speed above or behind him. At centre, he could become the swift triggerman himself.

Debating a switch

Other factors could explain Domi’s bump in production, like team chemistry, linemates, and a change of on-ice mentality. Maybe a move back to the wing after that year of overall development would free his offensive game even more.

That was my point of view before I started working on this article. Domi certainly developed the necessary skill set to break the puck out from the boards and capitalize on turnovers by gunning out of the defensive zone ahead of his teammates. A similar share of his production came from those situations even if he was slotted as a center.

Yet looking at some of the points he added from the F1 position, there seems to be more synergy than I anticipated between the pivot position and Domi’s play style, especially in how the breakout patterns helped him unlock some of his goal-scoring ability.

Even if it proves to be the best decision from the team’s perspective, switching him back to the flank could reduce his effectiveness in that area of the game, and in turn diminish the ability of his line to generate offence at the same rate.

The 2018-19 season was Domi’s first as a pivot. It’s possible he improves his defensive game and finds even more opportunities to score inside this new role. If this ends up further complicating the coming decisions of the coaching staff, it should be perceived as good news. The organization spent long years without prime centremen, so potentially having too many of them is a welcome switch in perspective. It makes dealing with injuries easier, and the NHL is heading more and more toward positionless hockey for forwards, where every attacker is called upon to play any role on the ice at any given moment.

From this viewpoint, experience down the middle for “natural wingers” like Domi can be valuable. Generating offence is a matter of habits, and it helps to have some marks on the ice no matter the role played. The games spent down the middle should contribute to making him a more complete player with a better understanding of the game.