Canadiens Hold All the Cards in Domi Negotiations

The Montreal Canadiens can afford to play hardball with forward Max Domi, whose contract expires at the end of this coming season. Should they, though?

Domi vs. Bergevin

It’s an admittedly odd question, considering it’s a general manager’s responsibility to limit the salaries paid to players. Exceptions exist though, under extraordinary circumstances, such as goalie Carey Price’s years of semi-exceptional service to the Habs. Under GM Marc Bergevin’s loyalty program, Price got an unprecedented eight-year, $84 million deal that ends when he’ll be 39.

One other exception could theoretically be seen as a player cornering the market on a specific position. Where there’s a need, like a left-handed defenseman to play with Shea Weber (a la Karl Alzner, who had been an unrestricted free agent, somewhat justifying the massive overpayment), Bergevin will open the purse strings.

Marc Bergevin Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another need is at center, specifically someone to fill the role of No. 1 pivot on a team that has lacked one arguably even before Saku Koivu found his niche on the team. Domi, a pending restricted free agent, is quite possible the closest thing the Canadiens have at the moment.

Domi vs. Danault

Granted, Phillip Danault currently occupies the spot in question on the first line and he does it with relative Selke Trophy aplomb. However, from a production perspective, Danault simply can’t hold a candle to Domi, at least in terms of the latter’s offensive potential.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To illustrate the point, Danault tops out at around 50 points. In sharp contrast, Domi earned almost a point per game (28 goals, 72 points) in his 2018-19 debut season with the Habs, leading them in scoring while playing mostly between Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw.

As such, Danault’s  $3.083 million cap hit is far from a realistic assessment of Domi’s worth or what he is likely to demand. For starters, Domi’s cap hit is already $3.15 million. Admittedly, Danault will command a significant raise once his contract expires at the end of next season. However, due to the Habs’ relative depth at center, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling having been drafted and Nick Suzuki having been acquired, there may not be room for him and his eventual salary.

That’s where things also get complicated for Domi. Sure, Kotkaniemi, the mere 20-year-old who was projected as the Habs’ top center of future when he was drafted, failed to take a step forward this past season (from 34 points in 79 games to just 8 in 36), Neither did Domi, though. He dropped to 44 points during a season in which the Canadiens scored just 208 goals in 71 games, ranking 19th in the league.

Domi vs. Himself

In reality, looking at Domi’s five-season career as a whole, he’s never come close to matching his production from 2018-19 before. He may never again. That’s the risk Bergevin would have to take, re-signing a player who has also been subject to trade rumors. As such, it only seems fair, to get a realistic assessment of Domi’s potential, that we average out his production on a per-season basis, removing both his 2018-19 and his 2017-18 campaigns (when he scored a career-low 0.55 points per game).

In so doing, the picture becomes clearer. Domi is a 52-point scorer, for all intents and purposes. That should put him line for a contract similar to what T.J. Oshie signed as a soon-to-be 26-year-old with the St. Louis Blues in 2012 (five years, $4.175 million hit) on the lower end of the spectrum (as it was a relatively sweetheart deal).

T.J. Oshie
Ex-St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the higher end of the spectrum, you could maybe put down Oshie’s ex-teammate Jaden Schwartz. A center, who now plays primarily as a left-winger, Schwartz signed a five-year, $26.75 million deal ($5.35 million) as a 24-year-old. Of note, he’s also experienced production and consistency issues similar Domi during his career.

Both deals were signed by Blues GM Doug Armstrong, thereby eliminating at least one variable in the process of predicting Domi’s next deal. Adjusting for inflation, there’s probably a realistic window between $4.5 and $5.75 million.

If Bergevin can get the arbitration-eligible Domi to re-sign for the lower amount, there’s no question he should jump at the opportunity. After all, Domi may have scored just 44 points, but almost the entire team struggled from an offensive standpoint. He still ended up as the third-leading scorer on a team that will need offense moving forward.

However, if Domi’s demands end up on the higher end, than it becomes a murkier situation with regard to how Bergevin should proceed. Thankfully, Domi is the only significant player Bergevin has to re-sign to sign this upcoming offseason. And, due to several seasons of budget spending, the Canadiens have the cap space to get it done without much if any issue.

Where Domi Fits In on Canadiens

However, players like Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry all have expiring contracts in 2021. There are rumors the cap will stay flat at $81.5 million for the next few seasons, meaning Bergevin would effectively have to prioritize between his current players, not to mention any prospective UFA signings or potential predatory acquisitions from teams struggling to get below the cap ceiling.

Max Domi Montreal Canadiens
Max Domi – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Re-signing Domi should still be a priority for Bergevin. Even if only because trading the rights of an unsigned RFA might adversely impact the return. With that in mind, Bergevin must keep the value of the contract down, focusing on Domi’s decreased production this past season and how he’ll likely end up as a winger on this team down the road, if he does in fact stay in the mix. The investment of time into developing Kotkaniemi and the emergence of Suzuki should see to that in theory.

In other words, Domi’s a valuable asset, just not an invaluable one. His next deal should reflect that, regardless of whether or not he stays with the Habs over its entire length. There’s still room for a player like Domi in this line-up, just not at any cost.