Richard Morin, azcentral sports
As a young kid growing up in the Toronto area, Max Domi would watch his father, Tie, play right wing for parts of 11 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But when Max dreamed of playing in the NHL, he always imagined it one way — as a center.
For Domi, the road to finding himself as a player has been filled with twists and turns — from a position switch as a teenager to rediscovering himself as a center with the Coyotes this season. And he knows there is still a long way to go.
Growing up, Domi wanted only to play center — as he’s done for most of his life.
So why, before now, has Domi played only left wing since being drafted 12th overall by the Coyotes in 2013?
When Coyotes first-year coach Rick Tocchet switched Domi to center during the team’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 16, it was the first time the 22-year-old had played the position since he was 16.
Entering Tuesday’s game against San Jose, Domi had played the prior 11 games as the Coyotes’ second-line center. It’s a challenge he welcomes with open arms.
“It’s definitely a new experience for me,” Domi said. “Whenever you’re asked to do something in a team environment, you’re expected to do it. Obviously it takes some time to get used to a new position, but I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s a great challenge and I’m lucky to play with some talented wingers who make my job really easy.”
In the 2011 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft, Domi was selected eighth overall by the Kingston Frontenacs but later sent to the London Knights in exchange for three second-round picks.
In London, Domi began the season as a center but was displaced when the team acquired Greg McKegg from the Erie Otters in January 2012. McKegg had tallied 92 points in 66 games with the Otters during the previous season.
“I played center my whole life playing minor hockey and stuff,” Domi said. “When I was 16, we had a really good team in London and traded a bunch of guys so I moved from center to wing. We got a guy named Greg McKegg, and he was kind of a juniors superstar back then.”
Just a 16-year-old kid at the time, Domi was approached by the coaching staff and asked if he would move to wing. Although reluctant at first, Domi’s opinion of the wing soon changed.
“Our coach came up to me and said, ‘Can you move to wing?’ ” Domi recalled. “And I said ‘Of course, whatever you need me to do.’ So I moved to wing and actually kind of grew a liking to it and played wing the rest of my career.
“I really only played center as a minor hockey kid and half of an OHL season,” he said. “It’s been a while. When you play a position as a young kid, you expect to always play that position.”
Now, Domi has had a chance to relive what it’s like to be a center with the experience of what it’s like to play the wing. According to him, it’s a world of difference.
“It’s a whole different look at the game,” Domi said. “You see so many different things and as a winger you’re always thinking ‘offense, offense, offense.’ … You don’t have that much responsibility in your own zone. I find that it’s amazing how much more there is to the game than just creating offense.”
While Domi has undoubtedly had to pay more attention to his defensive responsibilities as a center, his heralded offensive prowess has gone rather silent this season — even during his time as a winger.
In 45 games, Domi has just three goals and 16 assists this season. As a winger, he played just 59 games last season and scored nine goals among his 38 points, doubling his current total this season in just 14 more games.
“He’s actually been doing a good job defensively,” Tocchet said of Domi. “Obviously we need more offense and we’re trying to get him to shoot the puck. The one good thing by playing center is he’s done a good job in our own end. That’s a positive, now we just need to get more offense from him. Right now it’s a little bit of a mental block where he’s not shooting the puck.”
Domi said he’s been watching a lot of video on the league’s top centers such as Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews in an effort to see how they’re able to provide offense while also being responsible in their own zones.
“It’s really difficult and you gain more respect for centers in this league that can defend and provide offense,” Domi said. “You try to watch video on those guys and see how they defend against the top line and still create offense. It takes time to learn that and that’s what I’m going through right now.”
Tocchet said that while Bergeron and Toews are the ultimate models of two-way centermen, he wants Domi to play a more aggressive style en route to finding his offensive game.
And while Domi has struggled to find the scoresheet, Tocchet said his defensive play alone has been enough to keep him in the lineup in an effort to find his scoring touch.
“Sometimes you want to see a guy work his way out of it,” Tocchet said. “As long as he’s playing well defensively — because if he’s not playing well defensively, it’s a whole different story — you want to try to keep him in the lineup and see him work himself out of it.”
Domi said that he is in uncharted territory and added that he has never been in an offensive drought this severe. But he wasn’t upset about it. He was optimistic.
“That’s part of the game,” Domi said. “But for me I’ve never experienced that before. It’s great because the positive of it is that I need to overcome adversity. The best players in the world go through this kind of stuff so it’s no different for myself.
“You’re still part of the team so the individual stuff really means nothing. You just want to help the team win … Eventually, you need to trust that what you want to do will fall into place. I’m just sticking with it right now and having fun being out with the guys and working hard.”