Today's NHL is starting to resemble the NFL, in that players' roles, reputations and overall standings with their teams can change drastically year over year. That's why the NFL's nickname is 'Not For Long.' And it summarizes what's happened to Max Domi in Montreal.
A year ago, he'd completed a smashing debut season with the Habs, in which he'd slid over from left wing to center and ripped off a career-best 72 points. Heading into a contract year, Domi appeared to be an important part of Montreal's future.
A year later, Domi slid down the lineup after tumbling to a 44-point regular season in 71 games and ended up passed on the depth chart by centers Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi by the post-season and placed on the fourth line. Domi had no goals and three assists in 10 games and appeared to have fallen out of favor with coach Claude Julien, whose comments after the season implied Domi lost the fire in 2019-20 after the thrill of playing in a hockey-mad market fuelled his game in 2018-19.
So Domi, just in time to become an RFA, has an unclear role heading into 2020-21. It was announced Tuesday he'd fired agent Pat Brisson, who is a close friend of Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. Domi's new agent is Darren Ferris, who represents big-ticket 2020 UFA Taylor Hall.
Given Ferris' reputation for pushing negotiations to the brink and the fact Domi, still just 25 and possessing plenty of offensive upside, appears to be blocked on Montreal's depth chart, a trade looms. Plenty of teams could use Domi's speed and feistiness among their top-six forward groups.
At this stage, it's too early to report on any legitimate rumors, and sources close to the situation have told The Hockey News not to assume a Domi trade is a guarantee at all, as he's still open to staying in Montreal. But it's safe to say Domi can be had for the right offer at the moment, so we can speculate on the best landing spots for him based on (a) hockey fit and (b) cap space of potential suitors.
Where might Domi end up if and when he's traded before the 2020-21 season? Consider these teams.
1. BUFFALO SABRES
The 2018 Ryan O'Reilly trade decimated the Sabres. It put too much pressure on Casey Mittelstadt to fill a role he wasn't ready for: No. 2 center. He wound up demoted to the AHL the next season. The Sabres can't risk screwing up top prospect Dylan Cozens' development by making the same mistake and forcing him too high up the depth chart without earning his way there. New GM Kevyn Adams needs to acquire a veteran center, and he happens to boast $34.48 million of cap space. Might it make sense to offer a deal that includes punting on Mittelstadt and bringing in Domi as your No. 2 center behind Eichel? Domi is young enough to have many peak years left. He's only about 3.5 years older than Mittelstadt.
2. MINNESOTA WILD
Captain Mikko Koivu, 37, is a UFA, and Eric Staal, 35, enters the final year of his deal. The Wild are old at the center position. They need a younger, more dynamic pivot to keep up with breakout star Kevin Fiala and Calder Trophy candidate Kirill Kaprizov. Their top center prospect, Alex Khovanov, needs more time to develop and doesn't grade out as a can't-miss star. Since the Wild appear to be assuming more of a retooler identity than a rebuilder one under new GM Bill Guerin, an established NHL center with youth still on his side might make sense. The Wild have already turned around the career of 2014's 11th-overall pick in Fiala. Maybe they can do the same with Domi, 2013's 12th-overall pick. The Habs could use some more size on the Wings, so Guerin could offer a package built around RFA Jordan Greenway.
3. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Pierre-Luc Dubois is locked in as Columbus' long-term No. 1 center. But the post-season eventually exposed the Blue Jackets as a team depending a bit too much on its top line and needing a pivot with more offensive ability to drive the second line. That could eventually be Liam Foudy's role, but he was eased in as a winger during the bubble tournament. To bridge the gap until he's ready, might the Jackets pursue someone like Domi? If Josh Anderson is healthy, he's the type of bruising winger Montreal could target as part of the return.
4. WINNIPEG JETS
A head/eardrum injury is a legitimate threat to Bryan Little's career, and he's been Winnipeg's most reliable option at No. 2 center for years. His replacement this season, Cody Eakin, is a UFA, and supposed successor Jack Roslovic hasn't ascended as hoped. Domi could plug a crucial hole in the Jets' lineup, and they have a variety of potential packages to dangle. Might Roslovic want a change of scenery? Or would GM Kevin Cheveldayoff try to build a blockbuster involving Patrik Laine? Montreal would have to offer more than Domi for that to work, but it does have a loaded farm system plus 14 picks in the 2020 draft.
5. SAN JOSE SHARKS
Should the Sharks be blowing things up and starting over at this point? Absolutely. Does that mean they will? Don't count on it. Not after a season they can blame on catastrophic injuries to the likes of Tomas Hertl and Erik Karlsson. Under GM Doug Wilson, the Sharks like to take a run at the playoffs pretty much every year. Their forward depth got decimated last season, with Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist departing as UFAs. Might Wilson consider moving on from Joe Thornton, who may want to pursue a Cup on a surefire contender in what could be his final season? It would open up one of the top three center spots for Domi, and the Sharks have very little coming in the way of quality prospects.
Other potential suitors to watch: New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins*
*The Bruins could have a "hockey fit" for Domi, but bitter rivals Montreal and Boston haven't made a trade in 19 years, so…