Montreal Canadiens’ Depth at Center Makes Max Domi Expendable

The Montreal Canadiens’ depth at center has made general manager Marc Bergevin’s offseason decisions more interesting. Here, we will look specifically at Max Domi and consider the team’s options if he is not a fit moving forward.

When Domi arrived in Montreal, fans and the media wondered why Bergevin traded Alex Galchenyuk, a former 30-goal scorer, for a player who had scored only nine goals in each of his prior two seasons. Brendan Kelly of the Montreal Gazette went so far as to suggest the trade was helping to destroy the team (from ‘What the Puck: GM Marc Bergevin is Destroying the Team one trade at a time,’ Montreal Gazette, June 19, 2018). Since then, though, according to Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, Domi has earned the respect of his teammates, coaching staff, and most fans.

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However, Domi has fallen down the Canadiens depth chart at center and if he wants to remain an NHL center, it will have to be elsewhere. Perhaps he showed his desire to leave when he removed any mention of the Habs from his social media accounts. However, the Canadiens don’t have to deal him away. With 12 picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, prospects, and now depth at several positions, Bergevin can be patient and target a player who can help the team in the mid- to long-term.

Devan Dubnyk, Max Domi
Is Domi ready to leave Montreal? (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Soon after making the changes to his social media accounts, Domi fired his agent, Pat Brisson, who is one of Bergevin’s close friends. Domi could be sending management a message as players sometimes fire agents if they feel that the agent can’t or won’t act in their best interest.

Last Season as a Center in Montreal

Domi is a restricted free agent (RFA) in search of a meaningful role in the NHL. The Canadiens relied on him to be a top-six center in 2018-19, when he produced 72 points and helped lead the team to a 96-point season. This season, though, like most of his teammates, he struggled to match his career-best play.

Then, after a late arrival to the Habs Phase 4 training camp due to his health issues – Domi has Type 1 Diabetes – he was used as a fourth-line center to start the play-in series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Domi was eventually moved up into a scoring role on the wing as the team’s other centers surpassed him in return to play. Head coach Claude Julien addressed this at his end-of-season press conference:

“I mean, at the end of the day, we ended up putting him on the wing in these playoffs. Obviously, when you look at the other three centremen that were doing really well …. I guess our original thought this year, and we mentioned many times, we really feel that we’re a great team when we’re a four-line team that we can wear teams down,”

Stu Cowen, Stu on Sports: Max Domi’s days with Canadiens appear to be over, The Montreal Gazette, August 31, 2020.

If Domi has been passed on the depth chart at center, do the Canadiens see him as a viable top-six option on the wing? Julien recently hinted at the fact that the organization does not see Domi as such:

It does seem as though Domi is no longer a fit at center in the top-six, and management doesn’t see him as a solution on the wing. If that’s indeed the case, trading him might be the best option to help fill a need.

There will be no shortage of trade scenarios in the coming weeks. A handful of teams will be in search of depth at center, a role the Canadiens have publicly been stating Domi can fill. Moving him may allow Bergevin to fill a need for size and skill along the wing to complement the up-and-coming young centers.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins were shockingly eliminated by the Canadiens in the play-in round, however, their GM Jim Rutherford is still using this offseason to build a winning team. He added Kasperi Kapanen in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, to add scoring to his top-six.

Rutherford might also be interested in Domi, who would add grit and playmaking to the Penguins’ top-nine. In return, the Canadiens might want to add size to the wing. One player who could fill that need is Nick Bjugstad.

Pittsburgh Penguins' Nick Bjugstad New York Rangers' Brett Howden
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Nick Bjugstad and New York Rangers’ Brett Howden (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Bjugstad has the size the Habs crave. He also plays a power game, whether at center or on the right wing. He has suffered injuries in the past two seasons, though, as he had spinal surgery in late May for a herniated disc. He’s expected to be ready for next season, but his injury history could make Bergevin pause before taking on his $4.1 million cap hit for 2020-21.

If Domi were traded to Pittsburgh for Bjugstad, Bergevin could also ask for a high-end prospect to even up the difference in value between the two veteran centers. A prospect the Canadiens could target if they are willing to wait until he is NHL-ready is Samuel Poulin. It’s not because he’s a francophone – which is an added bonus – but because he’s a physically mature young winger who also plays a power game.

Samuel Poulin
Sherbrooke Phoenix’s Samuel Poulin (Courtesy of Vincent Lévesque-Rousseau)

“He has an NHL shot and quick hands, in junior, you bring the offense in front of the net and find free space,” Sherbrooke Phoenix head coach Stephane Julien said of Poulin. “He’s able to do that with his power and his puck-protection skills; he is very strong physically. Now it’s a matter of finding momentum on offense. I think he can easily be an offensive player. It is simply a question of him finding his comfort zone so that he can establish himself as a player,”

Guillaume Lepage

Adding two big-bodied wingers with skill could instantly improve the Canadiens’ depth scoring, and buy time for their own wing prospects to develop.

Winnipeg Jets

The Winnipeg Jets had a disappointing season after expectations had them pegged as Stanley Cup contenders. Despite the upheaval on their blue line which came after losing Dustin Byfuglien to injury and Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba to trade, their defence allowed an average of only 2.83 goals per game – down from 2.96 in 2018-2019, partially thanks to a Vezina-worthy season from goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

However, the playoffs exposed their lack of depth down the middle. With an injury to star center Mark Scheifle, coupled with a long-term injury to Bryan Little, fans watched as Winnipeg struggled to generate offence from center, a role Domi is capable of filling.

Frank Seravalli told TSN 1290’s Big Show on Monday that two of the Jets’ biggest young guns might be trade bait:

“At some point this week, we’re going to be having our first TSN Trade Bait board of the offseason coming out, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see two players from the Winnipeg Jets on the list in both Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers,”

Frank Serevali, TSN 1290 Radio, The Big Show, August 31, 2020.

Laine would be an ideal target for the Canadiens who are in need of a star sniper who has game-changing skills and size. The cost to bring in the former second-overall pick would be very high, though, and Domi alone would not nearly be enough. Bergevin would need to add high-end picks, prospects, and an NHL-ready defenceman due to the Jets’ need for depth at that position. It’s a large package deal for a chance at adding the last season of Laine’s $6.75 million contract before he becomes an RFA.

Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets right-winger Patrik Laine could be on the trade market. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Nikolai Ehlers, on the other hand, would be a far more attainable asset. It won’t be easy to pry him out of Winnipeg, nor does he have Laine’s scoring prowess. However, he is a skilled winger who has provided four straight 20-plus goal seasons while demonstrating skillful playmaking and defensive ability. Domi alone may not bring in the proven 60-point player.

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Domi’s family ties to Winnipeg as the son of former Jet Tie Domi could help sell any trade. The two teams could be good trading partners, as the Canadiens have a wealth of picks and solid prospects to build a package that could convince the Jets to make a deal.

Nikolaj Ehlers – Winnipeg Jets vs Philadelphia Flyers – November 17, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The evidence points to Domi having played his last game as a Montreal Canadiens center. Despite his unimpressive play in these pandemic playoffs, he still holds enough value around the NHL that Bergevin could use him in a trade to fill some of the Habs needs on the wings. If he can do so, perhaps Montreal will have the depth and size to insulate their young centers well enough to earn a playoff berth in the traditional method next season, as a top-16 NHL team.