Max Domi Can Still Be An X-Factor, Just Not Now

Max Domi Can Still Be An X-Factor, Just Not Now
Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

By David Castillo

Max Domi wasn't the guy heading into the trade deadline. Patrick Kane was. It's a good thing for Domi too, because he could focus on his game without getting distracted by the public tension between criticism and praise. But it's also irrelevant. Sure, the expectations are lower for Domi, but the stakes are not. Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill brought Domi in to boost their offense; to be an x-factor beyond the top line. Right now, the Stars have nearly equal odds to play Minnesota or Colorado in Round 1, making the emphasis on Domi's presence no less crucial than any other Star who can tilt control of the puck.

Right now, his contributions thus far have been modest, with six points in 14 games. 'Modest' might be a stretch. Plenty of fans would probably use stronger language with the caveat that he lost his line. Wasn't that the argument against Denis Gurianov though? That Gurianov needed too much roster accommodation to be effective? If Domi can't make an impact on his own, regardless of linemates, might he just be the forward version of Nils Lundkvist—a talented player already nearing the threshold of a sunk cost?    

I'm not so cynical, but I'm also not sure. Domi’s place in the lineup was always gonna come down to meshing with Tyler Seguin. Seguin's had a decent year, especially compared to last year. But he hasn't found a real groove. And he has yet to find chemistry in the way Roope Hintz has with Jason Robertson, or the way Jamie Benn has with Wyatt Johnston. In fact, it’s been an annoying casting call all year for Seguin's right wing. Mason Marchment figured into that equation early on, but then went goalless in 32 games, and has largely disappointed. (I consider him a good forward overall, whose game could easily find another level in the playoffs, but the contract is looking questionable.)  

Thus far, head coach Pete DeBoer sees Radek Faksa as the closest thing to spackle Seguin's line has had. Surprisingly, they've been good in terms of driving play: Marchment-Faksa-Seguin are clocking nearly 53 percent in expected goal share and 55 percent in shot attempt differential. But driving play is just one aspect of offense. Scoring goals is kind of important too, and in that category Marchment-Seguin-Faksa are—forgive me—hammered smashed fecal matter (I could have said something nicer here but you haven't heard the stat yet). Out of 145 lines with at least 130 minutes together, Marchment-Seguin-Faksa rank #142 in goals for per 60 minutes of even strength play. That’s only a notch above Philadelphia’s line with Nicolas Deslauriers and Zack MacEwan; two barely-updated throwbacks to the goon era.

Enter Domi. It's possible Dallas had/has something here. The Marchment-Seguin-Domi line had a brief cameo. In 24 minutes together, they’re rocking a solid 54 percent expected goal share. Assuming that was indicative of their future performance, it would be slightly above average, rating just below LA’s top line of Adrian Kempe and Quinton Byfield with Anze Kopitar.

But is it?

It’s hard to say. Their offense is good. At 3.01 expected goals per 60, that would rate 59th of 145 trios, or slightly above average. At 2.51 goals against, they would rank 80th, or slightly below average. This is right in line with Domi's reputation: an above average scorer with below average defense.

How much of that characterization is fair, though?

Honestly: very. As much as I'd like to say something diplomatic here (especially about Domi, whose career I've followed; if you're wondering why, my general rule of thumb is that non-elite playmakers are always underrated), it didn't take much time for Domi's missed assignments to start showing up. Defense is obviously important. (What better representation of this principle than the Lundkvist situation, who can't go one shift without having to worry about a single mistake?) But if Domi can provide enough offense to offset his lack of defense, does it really matter?

For me, this question tends to be open and shut: no, and no. Don't galaxy brain the primary principle of a forward. They're closer to the net in offensive situations which makes their ability to finish plays and gain territory essential. They need to be able to do something relevant offensively. But Domi is such a specific player, it's not that obvious. Still, rather than labor over discussions about offense versus defense, let's answer the most important question: what can we project about Domi's future performance next to Marchment and Seguin?    

Data per Patrick Bacon and Corey Sznajder. Visual per JFreshHockey

Starting with Domi, he shortens the neutral zone at a very high level, wants to carry the puck for others, can pass...and that's sort of it. In some ways Domi is a nice case study in how goal scoring doesn't have to come from shooting. Goals are caused by offense, not the other way around, and Domi's offense is all over the ice thanks to his assist rates and zone entries. What's interesting is that he doesn't generate much inside the zone. This is because, in part, he's just not a very good forechecker (to put it mildly). How does Domi's odd profile project to match with Seguin and Marchment?  

Data per Patrick Bacon and Corey Sznajder. Visual per JFreshHockey

Starting with Seguin, it doesn't look good. Seguin's strengths at this point in his career has more to do with facilitating the puck than shooting it. What's worse is that Seguin simply isn't finding the open space anymore; this season actually marks his career-low in shots on net per 60 minutes of even strength play with 8.85 (if it's any consolation, his individual expected goal-scoring ranks 6th out of his nine full seasons in Dallas).  

That's extra unfortunate because Domi is not a shooter. This was my problem (from the get go) with the "Seguin's Line Needs a Forward" logic. You can't just throw guys together because Production + Production = More Production. You have to find interlinking skills with one another. Seguin and Domi don't have it, and honestly, may not ever have it. Seguin has declined as a shooter, which cancels out Domi's passing. However, a trio is the sum of its parts, and we've only looked at two. What about the third?  

Data per Patrick Bacon and Corey Sznajder. Visual per JFreshHockey

This is the real x-factor. Marchment hasn't had much luck, but he also hasn't had someone of Domi's caliber passing him the puck. Otherwise he has great potential chemistry with Domi given his ability to get open from multiple areas to take the shot. I know we've skimmed through a lot of data so just in case you need the TL;DR version:

  • Domi’s passing combos well with Marchment’s shooting
  • Seguin’s passing does not combo well with Domi’s shooting
  • Marchment's shooting combos well with Seguin's high danger passing
  • Seguin is the only forechecker worth a damn
  • 27-91-18 should be very effective at entering the OZN
  • 27-91-18 could get stuck in the DZN a lot too
  • Despite their DZN limitations, they can initiate an attack

It's easy to see how Marchment-Seguin-Domi will work. Marchment is gonna shoot the pucks that Domi passes to him, and Seguin is gonna win the battles that give the other two space. However, it's also easy to see how Marchment-Seguin-Domi may not work. If Marchment can't finish, if Domi keeps missing assignments, if Seguin never shoots, etc.

From Domi though, context tends to be key. In Chicago, Domi was featured on the top power play unit. At even strength, he was the team's top pivot next to Patrick Kane. In Dallas, he's on the second power play unit with Ryan Suter—a defender with all of DeBoer's trust, but none of the strengths a power play unit deserves (of 261 power play regulars with Suter's minutes, Suter's production is bottom 20). His most common linemates at even strength are Faksa and Ty Dellandrea. Needless to say, he's not working with the same tools. I suppose the bottom line is that Marchment can't get healthy quick enough.      

Domi was never supposed to be the answer, though. He was just supposed to be an x-factor. Neither a ringer, nor a jobber, the good news for Stars fans is that when the playoffs begin, Domi doesn't have to be one or the other. He just has to be timely.