Maximizing Max Domi for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
7 months ago
The acquisition of Max Domi was a predictable but still savvy move by Brad Treliving this offseason. On one hand, it seemed that the Toronto Maple Leafs bringing in Domi at some point in his career was inevitable, but Domi signing on the bargain side of the reasonable deal scale while addressing the need for offensive depth is what makes the move an understandable risk.
Even at $3M and only a one year commitment, Domi wasn’t a signing completely free of risk. Going from someone like Alex Kerfoot to Max Domi meant giving up on a skillset that worked in two thirds of the rink in favour of a skillset prevalent in the offensive zone. While last season seemed to be what got Max back on track in even having offensive production, there is a bit of buyer beware in that regard too. The three seasons prior to last year saw Domi put up less than 50 points in each of those seasons. He only has one other season with 20 goals and while that 72 point season at 23 looks really impressive, he hasn’t repeated it. After his trade from the Blackhawks last season where Domi had 49 points in 60 games (definitely on track for close to that 72 point season) he dropped to just 7 points in 20 games for the Stars. With Domi it really seems to be about finding what works for him.
When determining where Domi fits in, the first thing that needs to be considered is that when he’s been offensively productive, he’s been utilized at centre. With the exception of his rookie year, Domi’s four best campaigns came in the seasons that he took the most faceoffs. That’s not to say he was a centre for those entire seasons, but he was seeing his fair share of time in the role. Domi also seems to rely a bit on PDO benders, which when you don’t really have a secondary element to your game to fall back on might be a bit of a problem. Nevertheless, other than his short stints in Carolina and Dallas, you can make an argument that Domi never had the quality of teammates that can help prevent those dips from happening and Toronto shouldn’t worry as much about Domi’s offence as they should mitigating the risk from his defence.
While instinctually the plan for Domi might be to put him in the top six as the playmaker on whatever line doesn’t have Marner on it, there should certainly also be some curiosity about whether Domi can be the third line centre that establishes more depth up the middle for the Leafs. By no means is Domi the traditional third line centre, but the Leafs have that in David Kampf and between the two of them Sheldon Keefe has strong in game options to consider if Toronto does go that route.
The above player card perfectly sums up the risk with Max Domi and with the Leafs being Domi’s 7th pro team it seems unlikely that Sheldon Keefe is going to be the coach that finally jumpstarts the part of Domi’s brain that helps him make good decisions in his own end. There are players that are criticized for their defensive play (William Nylander, hello) and then there is Max Domi who is going to need some real help or sheltering. If there has been one team that was able to accomplish this with Max Domi, it’s not surprising that it was his brief stop in Carolina. His offence wasn’t great there, but they came out very favourably in their goal differential with Max on the ice.
Here’s a breakdown of what has worked and what hasn’t for Max as far as linemates in his career so far.
Last season, when Domi got a bump in his offensive numbers it came from playing almost exclusively with Patrick Kane and then either Andreas Athanasiou or Philipp Kurashev as the other linemate. Whether you are talking goals, expected goals, shots, or shot attempts, the opposition ate them alive which is not at all surprising when you look at how bad the Blackhawks were last season. That was also the top scoring line for the Blackhawks to trot out so understandably the competition was tougher than that line should have been facing. Right sized to being the third line they would have been on most teams I’m sure things wouldn’t have gone as poorly, but that group still leaves a lot to be desired defensively and as soon as the puck hit the neutral zone you’d want that group off the ice.
Domi’s best hockey in Dallas came in the post season. The bulk of that time was spent with Mason Marchment as the other winger on the ice with him, and then either Tyler Seguin or Ty Dellandrea at centre. Dellandrea yielded the better results for Domi, and when Domi and Marchment were on the ice together they combined for 4 goals for and 10 goals against. Not really something that anyone should be looking to emulate. The only forward that Domi had a positive 5v5 with GF% in the post season was Joe Pavelski. Domi as a playmaker and Pavelski as a down low option near the net makes me wonder if there is something to putting Domi with John Tavares, but in that situation you’d definitely be looking to Calle Jarnkrok and two defensively sound bluelines to insulate them.
When it came to keeping Domi out of trouble in Carolina the linemate solution seemed to be Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck, along with other defensively minded centres like Kotkaniemi and Lorentz kept things from going wrong in Carolina’s end, but at the same time their style of play might have been too conservative to work with Domi at the offensive end of the ice. If the goal is to keep Max out of trouble at 5v5, mission accomplished, but even a frequent offensively gifted like Teuvo Teravainen couldn’t get the offence out of Domi.
Looking back to Domi’s career year in 2018-19 you get potentially the strongest example of what worked for him and some of that needs to be taken with 103.2 PDO grain of salt. In 2018-19, Domi was playing mostly with Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Drouin. Domi was the line’s centre, with Drouin moving over to the left side for most of the year and putting up 18 goals and 53 points in what would match his career high. Andrew Shaw would have his career best point total that season as well, and would help make some room for Drouin and Domi. Similar to Pavelski, Shaw (although not as skilled at it) would serve as strong net presence option for Domi, and like Domi, Drouin was out there purely for offencee, nothing resembling respectable defensive zone play.
Knowing all of this, where does that leave Toronto when it comes to utilizing Max Domi properly? Has anyone figured out how to utilize him properly in his time in the NHL so far?
Given the Leafs need for someone to grab the third line centre role (assuming the Leafs will essentially have an offensive third line, and defensive third line with Kampf) I’d be tempted to start Domi there rather than looking to turn the Tavares line into an offensive free for all. While Domi isn’t a physical presence on the ice, his feistiness and willingness to cause a scene after the whistle might also make him an ideal fit for John Tavares, who might be too cool headed for some.
The idea of Domi and Nylander has me intrigued, but seems like a far-fetched idea, as does the idea of trying to have Domi centring two youngsters in Nick Robertson and Matthew Knies to recreate a lot of the elements that worked for him with the Habs and perhaps the solution that I think we see the Leafs arrive at is more of a lineup blender than we’ve been used to in recent years and a lot more situational usage.
When Toronto is down a goal, expect to see Max Domi on the ice a lot more. When the Leafs are protecting a lead, he might lose his shifts to Calle Jarnkrok or David Kampf.
Max Domi’s interests lie exclusively in the opposition’s end and I think the lesson to take away from looking at where he’s been successful in the past, he needs at least one other linemate who thinks that way. Whether it is Nylander or Robertson, one of those two seems like the best fit for Domi and can complement Max’s playmaking ability.
Having a specific fit in mind for Domi might be missing the point of having Max Domi on the Leafs roster. Domi is also largely an acknowledgement that the Leafs are aware that injuries happen. Knowing that there is a player who allows for Toronto’s top six to take a minimal step back when that occurs thanks to having depth that can be applied at either centre or wing is a huge plus. That might be a cop-out answer for where Domi fits, but it feels like Domi’s usage is going to be far more situational with a greater variety of linemates than he’s been used to in previous seasons.
Data sourced from Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick.

Check out these posts...