Is Max Domi being set up to fail at centre?

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5991/" data-ylk="slk:Max Domi">Max Domi</a> is a ways away from being a top pivot. (Paul Chiasson/CP)
Max Domi is a ways away from being a top pivot. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Let’s ignore, for a second, that gutless sucker punch Max Domi threw on Aaron Ekblad early in the third period of Wednesday’s exhibition game.

It was a dumbass, scummy thing to do, yes, but the more important thing is that it will probably get him suspended for some preseason games.

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Normally one would say that getting suspended for most or all of the exhibition slate really isn’t that big of a deal. But the thing is that the Canadiens, in their grand hunt for a True No. 1 Centre, have landed on the idea of Domi being that guy. So that was where they tried him in the first two periods of that game and, you gotta say, he got buried.

In about seven and a half minutes of ice time with Domi playing centre at 5-on-5, Florida got off five shots on goal to Montreal’s one, out-chanced them 3-2, and scored. This despite Domi getting some pretty favorable territorial deployment. The problem, though, was that he went up against not only the Ekblad/Yandle pairing, but also the Barkov line.

That’s a tough draw for your first game as a centre with your new team, and some would say you can’t judge him too harshly for that lack of positive play. But the thing is, the Habs had last change in this game and didn’t shy away from throwing him out against one of the best centres in the sport. Maybe you call that a vote of confidence, but I call that setting him up to get his ass handed to him.

The problem for an inexperienced centre, though, is that this is an entire division in which you’re going to go up against some of the very best centres in the league. You can go down the list any way you like, but let’s try “alphabetically.” If you’re a No. 1 centre against Boston, you’re matched up against the Bergeron line, probably the single best three-man unit in the league. If you’re getting the toughest minutes against Toronto, well, enjoy either the Matthews or Tavares lines. Tampa, yeah you’re taking draws against Stamkos or Point. In Buffalo it’s Jack Eichel. Ottawa puts you up against Matt Duchene, at least for the time being. Detroit, lowly Detroit, can roll out Dylan Larkin against you.

Hell, depending upon how you value David Krejci, Nazem Kadri, Andreas Athanasiou, and maybe even Casey Mittelstadt, there’s a case to be made that Domi — who is largely only a centre because Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin have decided he is — is the 13th-best center in his own division. Thirteenth. Even if you’re being kinder to his quality than I’m inclined to be, it’s hard to see where he fits into the top 10.

A quick check of the schedule shows Domi will have to line up across from those teams, all with superior No. 1 centre options, a whopping 28 times this season. Such is life in the centre-rich Atlantic and that’s almost certainly what necessitated Bergevin’s frantic search for someone, anyone, who can come close to carrying water against those groups. Domi is almost certainly an option of last resort — remember, Montreal also tried Jonathan Drouin there for a spell last season and it… didn’t go well.

Now, okay, sure you can say the team maybe didn’t need to trade Alex Galchenyuk who, despite how the Habs’ distaste for his play at centre, has a much longer resume there than Domi. They did the classic bit where they traded a washer and dryer set where the lovely Smithers was standing for what’s in the box. A known quantity they demonstrably did not want was a known quantity nonetheless, one with a track record of success Bergevin chose to ignore. Now he’s gambling that Domi can go into the fiercest lions’ den in the league and not get disemboweled for a full third of the season by better players.

Domi was put into a tough spot by his coach and GM, no doubt, and that he put up poor numbers then had a violent meltdown that cost himself and his team more preseason time for experimentation and evaluation? It’s not off to a great start.

Again, this feels an awful lot like a suicide mission. Even if Domi is as good at centre as he was on the wing in Arizona — let’s keep in mind, obviously, that Domi is 116th among forwards in points per game over the last three seasons — things are only going to get tougher for him, matchup-wise, as a No. 1 pivot.

Note, also, that Domi was being deployed favorably in Arizona, which is fair enough and not something he has a lot of control over. His most common forward opponents were Joonas Donskoi, Jakob Silfverberg, Cody Eakin, Erik Haula, James Neal, Tyler Toffoli, etc. Certainly not top-line talent, which isn’t a luxury he’s going to get now in Montreal.

Yes, Domi is only 23, but he’s not even scoring as much as Tyler Bozak did over the last three seasons, playing a relatively new position (he has just 477 faceoffs to his name in three seasons, and he loses far more than he wins), he almost always has sub-50 underlyings, and usually doesn’t play more than 17 minutes a night. The idea that Bergeron, Matthews, Tavares, Stamkos, Eichel, Duchene, Larkin, et al wouldn’t make his life a nightmare for 18 or 19 minutes a game from October to April? It’s an interesting one, that’s for sure.

Of course, this could (and probably will) (and almost definitely should) be a short-lived experiment. The Canadiens famously bailed on Galchenyuk, who was passable as a higher-end center that wasn’t actually asked to take on No. 1 assignments. So how soon do you pivot away from Domi at the pivot when he predictably gets his skull caved in by the slew of elite-or-close-to-it players he would otherwise be taking draws against all year?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand that this is almost certainly a song and dance from Bergevin as he tries to distract from how badly things have gone for him the past few years. He’s calling Domi a No. 1 centre and hoping no one notices that he is neither a No. 1 nor, indeed, a real centre.

So yeah, the attempted sleight of hand here takes some balls to try to pull off. Especially if you have a pretty good idea that it’s not gonna work out. You gotta respect it in a Lord Tennyson kind of way.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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