It would be a big loss for the Montreal Canadiens to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins without forward Max Domi. It just wouldn’t necessarily equate to a loss in their projected play-in series, though.
Anything Can Happen for Canadiens
That almost goes without saying, really. The actual saying, which has effectively been adopted by the Canadiens themselves as a sort of mantra over the last few season, is “anything can happen in the playoffs.”
It is undeniably true too, even if it’s clearly a way for the Habs to control the narrative and steer it away from how the Habs are barely playoff contenders these days, let alone Stanley Cup ones. Nevertheless, the fact that the series against the Penguins is a best-of-five affair only reinforces how the Canadiens have a shot.
Granted, the matchup has the greatest points disparity of any qualifying-round series (15). And, yes, the Canadiens will have to contend with arguably the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby (not to mention cohort Evgeni Malkin). On paper, the Habs don’t have the guns up front to keep up on the scoreboard, with Domi generally considered to be a fairly big contributor in that regard.
So, yes, if Domi does decide to play it safe, which is what he probably should do, the Habs will miss him. Because of his health condition (diabetes) and how he is at greater risk of complications should he contract COVID-19, the Habs are already being cautious. They have released a statement saying Domi will wait up to 10 days before joining the team at training camp.
Safety Should Come First for Domi
It’s for the best, really. The last thing the Canadiens or anyone else should want is for Domi to take a chance with his long-term health and career. So, it’s far from out of the question that Domi will end up sitting on the sidelines when it comes time to play the Penguins (if the play-in round and playoffs do end up taking place).
Nevertheless, on a list of Canadiens players key to victory against the Penguins, Domi realistically might not even rank. Sure, it would be a major loss, but Domi is far from the straw that stirs the Habs’ drink on offense. Probably an Old Fashioned, for what it’s worth.
Domi did admittedly lead the Habs in scoring in 2018-19 with a career-high 72-points, but he fell to a 50-point pace this past season. Looking at his career up to now, those 72 points, scored during a season in which many Habs had career years, were the aberration instead.
It’s why, even if he does return to play, Domi is unlikely to gain much ground in negotiations with the Canadiens when his contract expires this upcoming offseason. In other words, from a personal standpoint, Domi has little to gain and everything to lose. So, why take a chance?
Meanwhile, from a professional standpoint, the Canadiens are simply poised to rely primarily on other players. For example, the onus to contain Crosby will likely fall on the shoulders of No. 1 center Phillip Danault.
Put simply, for them to stand a chance, Danault will be expected to lead by example. He’ll have to step up alongside the likes of fellow-forwards Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron and defenseman Ben Chiarot, each of whom has something to prove to a greater degree than Domi.
Price Key to Canadiens’ Success
Meanwhile, as always, goalie Carey Price will be key. To put his importance in perspective, Price was reportedly one reason teams were against a once-proposed best-of-three format. If a now-rested Price can get hot and rediscover his Hart Memorial Trophy-winning form, all bets are off.
Beyond the net, the usual suspects will have to carry the lion’s share of the load. They include the likes of top-defenseman Shea Weber, leading-scorer Tomas Tatar and his linemate Brendan Gallagher. Objectively speaking, Domi is simply on a lower tier relative to those big names, projecting as potentially a third-line center on the Canadiens’ depth chart.
To be fair, Domi plays a larger role offensively than the depth chart might suggest. However, looking at the hard numbers, he was only ninth on the Canadiens in terms of ice time per game, below forwards like ex-Hab (and 37-year-old) Ilya Kovalchuk and Joel Armia. While Domi admittedly got more than Gallagher or Tatar, all that means is those two used their ice time more efficiently to put points on the board.
Ultimately, safely assuming the Canadiens are playing to win, they’d much to prefer to have Domi in the fold. He’s a big part of the core of this team now and moving forward as a mere 25-year-old, but it’s important not overstate his importance to their success (or lack thereof this season), especially heading into negotiations.
The Canadiens are undeniably a better team with Domi in the lineup. However, any argument they’re dead in the water against the Penguins if he doesn’t play, doesn’t do justice to other Habs, many of whom are poised to have a greater impact in the series. It’s likely going to be a lot closer than many people believe as a result.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.