Finding Max Domi’s ideal linemates

The newcomer to the Canadiens found great chemistry with some and not-so-great chemistry with others. Who should he play with next season?

Max Domi’s 2018-19 season could best be summed up as a story in three acts. After catching fire in October and November, the young centre endured a 17-game goalless drought from mid-December to mid-January. While other players would have yielded to inertia, Domi rebounded to be one of the Montreal Canadiens’ better players down the stretch, adding 12 goals in his final 31 games to rival his 11 in 25 to start the season.

Interestingly, much of Domi’s ebbs and flows through the season lined up very neatly with major changes to his line. After starting the season between Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, Domi found Jonathan Drouin moved to his left after a 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the third game of the schedule. This pairing, later joined by Andrew Shaw, survived until the new year, when goal-scoring droughts for both Domi and Drouin necessitated change. After a brief stint beside Lehkonen and Tomas Tatar during which the Winnipegger got himself back on the scoresheet, Domi was reunited with Shaw upon the latter’s return from injury. It was a reunion that would last the remainder of the season.

Fool me once...

With the first line of Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher locked in stone for the time being, the Canadiens’ lineup decisions for this off-season (especially following Shaw’s departure) largely centre upon who to place with Domi on the second line and Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the third. The first instinct would be that Drouin and Domi are pencilled in to play together, given the success of 2018. One problem: any apparent chemistry between the two during that stretch was a mirage.

When looking at Domi’s with-or-without-you (WoWY) statistics with his five most common playing mates, Drouin ranks last or second-last in every one of the six categories examined. More alarmingly, the Drouin-Domi combination is the only one of the five that allowed more scoring chances and high-danger chances than they generated.

Even when we look at goals and assists, the data doesn’t favour a Domi-Drouin union. Yes, both players immediately launched into hot streaks when they were first placed together: Domi went on to score nine goals in his next 12 games, while Drouin notched eight points in his next nine. However, Drouin only registered an assist on three of Domi’s nine markers, and only one of those came at even strength. Conversely, Domi assisted on only one of Drouin’s three goals, and that was a power-play tally. During this time, Drouin and Domi both assisted on the same goal only once, a Jeff Petry power-play goal against the Calgary Flames on October 23.

It’s likely that the Domi-Drouin divorce would have been decided upon much earlier if not for the addition of Andrew Shaw to that line on November 8. Strikingly, during the 20 games when Domi, Drouin, and Shaw were together, Domi factored in 16 even-strength goals, with only two not also involving Shaw or Drouin hitting the scoresheet as well. As for Drouin, he factored in 17 even-strength goals, with only one not also featuring Shaw or Domi. The trio even managed to occupy all three scorer’s slots five times.

Between Shaw’s withdrawal on December 20 until Drouin’s promotion to the top line on January 12, Domi recorded five even-strength points and Drouin notched two, but the two were involved on the same goal only once.

Fool me twice...

Given all of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Domi’s revival in the second half of the season coincided with the removal of Drouin and the addition of players like Lehkonen, Tatar, Byron, and Shaw. Of the six prominent line combinations that Domi was part of during the 2018-19 season, all of the ones which featured net negative values for either shot, goal, or chance metrics feature Drouin.

At the same time, it’s also clear that Shaw was instrumental to Domi’s success, given how prominently he features on this table. When Domi and Shaw were on the ice together, regardless of the third member of the line, they were absolutely dominant offensively (Montreal’s team average threat ratings were +11% offensively and -4% defensively). Without Shaw, Domi’s offensive numbers are slightly above league average and slip below team average.

The concern is that with Shaw now in Chicago the coaching staff will turn back to the Drouin-Domi combination with the aim of recapturing the illusory success that the duo enjoyed in October and November of 2018. At the same time, there’s no other obvious answer within the roster as it currently stands. Last year, Domi worked well with the likes of Lehkonen and Byron, but how much did the Domi-Shaw synergy contribute to that?

What is clear is that while Domi may have scored a career-high 28 goals last season, his playing style remains that of a playmaker. Indeed, the fact that he and Drouin had to share one puck probably contributed to their lack of effectiveness together. The best complement to the playmaking Domi would be shooters and/or puck-retrieval specialists — which also explains why Shaw and Domi worked so well together.

Paul Byron fits the bill as a shooter, but the speedster does his best work finding holes in traffic, not barging through it. Joel Armia excels at puck retrieval and protection, but doesn’t have the greatest offensive hockey sense or acumen. Lehkonen may have the best pure shot of the three, but can he actually deploy it?

Perhaps a more unorthodox solution is in order, such as Jordan Weal or even Ryan Poehling? A Lehkonen-Domi-Poehling trio might offer a way to acclimatize the rookie without overly burdening him with defensive responsibilities while still giving Domi linemates that align with his playing style.

Last year was a demonstration that as long as Domi has the puck on his stick and teammates to find, the Canadiens will enjoy success with him on the ice. To this end, the Habs coaching braintrust should be able to experiment with prospective linemates for the first quarter of the season without impacting his play to a great degree. Whom the young centre ultimately winds up playing with in his second season in the Tricolore will depend on how the rest of the team performs during these auditions.

Special thanks to Natural Stat Trick for line combination and WOWY statistics, Micah Blake McCurdy for WoWY heatmaps, and Sean Tierney, Corey Sznajder, and Ryan Stimson for playing style visualizations.

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