Seven years ago, almost to the night, Mike Smith held his teammates back while an 18-year-old Steven Stamkos skated out alone for his first warm-up at the Air Canada Centre. Turned out pretty well, we’d say. That night, Oct. 28, 2008, Stamkos registered the first of his 505 career points with an assist.
Monday night was Max Domi’s turn. Now a seasoned veteran goaltender with the Arizona Coyotes, Smith instructed Domi to lead the team out onto the ice, then stood back as Domi whirled around the ice all alone. Like Stamkos, Domi then proceeded to hit the scoreboard, opening the scoring with a power-play goal in the Coyotes 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I just thought it would be fun to take some of the pressure, the nerves out,” Smith said. “It was a fun way of initiating him in Toronto. It was awkwardly long for him and I think that was the point of it, to get a good chuckle out of it. He kept skating by and I kept seeing him through the door with a big grin on his face.”
Domi has a lot of reasons to smile these days. The goal was Domi’s fourth of the season and gave him 10 points in just nine games to put him atop the scoring in what is shaping up to be a spectacular rookie class. The Coyotes themselves have four of them in their lineup this season, with rookie goal leader Anthony Duclair, promising prospect Jordan Martinook and defenseman Klas Dahlbeck joining Domi as first-year players.
The Coyotes have a nice mix there, having drafted Domi and Martinook and trading for Duclair and Dahlbeck, who came to Arizona from Chicago along with a first-round pick for Antoine Vermette, a player they ended up re-signing as a free agent after he won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks last spring.
Aside from it spreading the bill around when the Coyotes get around to having their rookie dinner this year, it has been a boon to the team’s on-ice fortunes. The Coyotes not only took over the Pacific Division lead with their win over the Maple Leafs, but 12 of their 27 goals this season have been scored by their four rookies. All four players have scored at least one goal, including Dahlbeck, who has two and currently has one more goal than Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Domi has handled everything that has come his way this season with the poise of a veteran, which likely has something to do with the fact that he had a fair number of pretty good role models growing up. But anyone who questioned Domi’s ability to handle the rigors of playing in the NHL has had to acknowledge that after 10 games, he has proved to be a quick NHL study.
“As a player, he’s incredible,” said Coyotes captain Shane Doan. “He’s exciting, he’s everything you want as a player, but as a kid, he’s awesome.”
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked that when he saw Domi out on the ice by himself Monday night, at first he thought it was a minor hockey player skating around with the team flag. When he sees Domi score the way he did with a snapshot from the top of the circle, he’d like to see his player shoot the puck more often, particularly if he’s going to score on 20 percent of the shots he takes.
“He has a great shot, forehand and backhand,” Tippett said. “It’s a really good story right now for an unbelievable kid. There’s a lot of pressure on him, a lot of spotlight on him and he’s been so humble to his teammates, such a great person in the dressing room and he’s a really good hockey player.”
There is no doubt Domi is leading a charmed life at the moment. The last time he was on the Air Canada Centre ice, it was in leading Canada to its first World Junior Championship gold medal in six years. His speed, a trait that he inherited from his father – don’t laugh, Tie Domi was a terrific NHL skater with surprising speed – has been on full display, as has his skill level. The Coyotes are undergoing something of resurgence this season with their young players taking on a significant role in the early success.
And now that the rookie embarrassment is over with, he can now get on with his career.
“I thought I was going to have to do it in the first game I played and then I thought, ‘Oh, I got away with it,’ ” Domi said. “And then Smitty says, ‘Go ahead,’ and I get out there and I’m like, ‘Damn.’ Usually it’s one lap, but I got seven or eight in there, so it was a good warm-up for sure.”