New Blue Jackets center Max Domi on trade: ‘I’m looking forward to the challenge’

Like a lot of players who’ve become friends along the path to the NHL, Max Domi and Josh Anderson have talked about playing on the same team.

They were teammates in junior hockey with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and that went great, so why not rekindle it as professionals?

Well, their paths have now officially crossed in the NHL — just not in the way either imagined. In fact, it’s the exact opposite scenario after the Blue Jackets traded Anderson to the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday to acquire Domi and a third-round pick (No. 78) in the 2020 NHL draft, a virtually-held event that began a few hours later and concludes on Wednesday.

“I’ve been on the phone with him probably three or four different times,” said Domi, 25, who missed multiple calls from both team’s general managers on Tuesday while golfing. “The first thing we said is, ‘Man, did that just happen? Seriously?’ When you’re friends with somebody in the league, we always say stuff like, ‘Let’s play together one day,’ and now we’re getting traded for each other. It’s nuts.”

That’s just the start of it.

Both are pending restricted free agents, both have with arbitration rights as a leg up in contract negotiations and both are represented by the same agent, Darren Ferris.

It was largely through Ferris’ hardline negotiating with the Blue Jackets in 2017 that Anderson missed training camp, all preseason games and the first two games of the regular season. He eventually signed a three-year deal, but coach John Tortorella was so displeased by it all that he continued to grumble about it, sporadically, over the full span of the contract.

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has now put a different Ferris client on the opposite side of the table, but doesn’t sound concerned. Asked by The Dispatch’s Michael Arace if he’d announce a new contract with Domi on Wednesday, Kekalainen chuckled before answering.

“Probably not (Wednesday), but we’re working on it and we’re not worried at all that we’re not going to get a contract done with him,” Kekalainen said. “We have his (signing) rights for a minimum of two years, so he’s excited to come here. I talked to him personally, Torts talked to him and our leadership group, players, talked to him. He’s very excited to join our club and I’m sure we can work out a contract.”

Domi has until 5 p.m. on Saturday to file for player-elected arbitration if things bog down, which is something Kekalainen wanted to avoid with Anderson. Had it gotten to that point with him, it would’ve resulted in a one-year deal that ended with Anderson becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Instead, he’s off to Montreal for the next stage of his career.

“We have a very high opinion of Josh Anderson, both as a player and as a teammate and a good guy,” Kekalainen said. “We’re going to miss him, but when the rights to a player are expiring, you have to make hard decisions. We made it very clear to him before this happened, that if we can’t agree on a contract, then he’s going to get moved. There was no gray area there (with his salary demands) and we had to make this decision now to protect our asset and get the best return for it. … We wish Josh the best of luck and thank him.”

They are also happy to fill a glaring need with Domi, who is expected to center the Jackets’ second line.

“I think both situations are great for both players and I’m lucky enough to come to a situation where you’re wanted and a team that really wants you and has high expectations for you,” said Domi, who was taken 12th overall in 2013 by the Arizona Coyotes and dealt to Montreal in 2018. “That’s something I’m really excited about. It’s something that I thrive on, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The same can be said for the Jackets, who hope Domi returns to his 2018-19 form in the second-line center role. He finished that season, his first in Montreal, with career-highs in goals (27), assists (44) and points (72) in a full 82-game slate. He had a sizable drop this past season to 17 goals, 27 assists and 44 points in 71 games, plus 0-3-3 in 10 postseason games, but a fresh start and new contract may yield better results.

The Jackets might also be a perfect fit for Domi, the scrappy son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi. He’s a new-school player with an old-school attitude and looks forward to meeting Tortorella’s stringent demands.

“The first thing I told him was, ‘I know how hard you guys work and how hard of a team you are to play against,’ and that’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Domi said. “I don’t like taking shifts off and their whole team is like that. They all block shots, they’re all so fast … it’s an exciting group. And it’s much nicer to be on the other side of that for once instead of the receiving end.”