In the opening weeks of the Toronto Maple Leafs' season, Max Domi didn't look like the worst of the team's offseason pickups — but he was the most anonymous.
He didn't author a number of defensive blunders like John Klingberg, failed to turn loads of time with top players into production like Tyler Bertuzzi, and didn't watch his team get outscored by a massive degree when he was on the ice like Ryan Reaves.
Through 11 games, Domi produced a quiet four assists without standout possession numbers or eye-opening defensive contributions that helped mitigate his lack of production. His struggles didn't often take the form of dramatic miscues, but he didn't make much of an impact.
With their bottom-six failing to generate anything offensively, the Maple Leafs opted to have Domi centre a third unit with Nick Robertson and Calle Järnkrok. It wasn't a move that was rewarding him for great work, but rather an effort to get him going, and improve the team's depth scoring.
That shakeup has undoubtedly worked so far. In the four games since he moved to centre, Domi has more points (5) than he did in his first 11. All of those points came at 5v5, meaning that he's team leading 5v5 point producer during that time.
We're dealing with a small sample here, but it seems like the Maple Leafs have brought the 28-year-old to life after a sleepy start to 2023-24.
What's changed for Domi?
Playing centre has given Domi more responsibility, but it's also put the puck on his stick more often. The veteran is at his best when he holds the puck, probes defences, and distributes to teammates in dangerous positions.
He was likely miscast alongside Tavares and Nylander when the season opened because he didn't have a clear function on Toronto's second line. Nylander functions best when he carries the puck as much as possible and Domi doesn't stand out as a forechecker or off-puck shooting threat. He would have the same compatibility issue with Mitch Marner if he ever got a shot on the Maple Leafs' top line.
That means he's best suited to a unit lower in the lineup where he can be a facilitator setting up reliable scorers — like he was on this play against the Calgary Flames when he helped generate chances for Calle Järnkrok and Morgan Rielly in quick succession.
It'd been tough for him to pull that off early in the year with groups that included inexperienced 19-year-old Fraser Minten or defensive specialist David Kämpf at centre.
By stepping in as a pivot, Domi has been able to invite two offensively capable players alongside him — both of whom are finishers first. Järnkrok is coming off a season where he produced more goals than assists, while Robertson has nearly as many goals (27) and assists (30) in his AHL career and 20 more goals than helpers at the OHL level.
Domi finally has scorers to feed, and that's resulted in some highlight reel goals in recent games.
In his new role Domi is also in a good position to carry the puck on the rush. Not only is he the best candidate to dominate the puck on his line, being a centre means that he's likely to be deeper in the defensive zone than whoever's on his flank — giving him the ability to collect the puck from his defencemen and take off.
This rush didn't result in a particularly dangerous chance, but it's a good example of the type of play Domi can create now that he was unlikely to make on the wing.
This sequence came at the end of Domi's shift, which helps explain why he labours through the neutral zone a bit.
According to NHL Edge, his top skating speed (22.32 mph) is in the 81st percentile of the NHL and there are other instances when he's looked more dangerous off the rush lately — like this one in his first game at centre vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While the 28-year-old has been held without a goal since his positional transition, his peripheral numbers suggest that he's getting closer to finding the back of the net.
That's all small-sample stuff, but it meshes with how Domi looks right now. The veteran seems to have more pep in his step lately.
It's the sort of thing that's tough to quantify or even identify in a specific moment in a game — but one example might be this play where Domi gets to full speed immediately off the bench to keep the puck in and create a chance.
After struggling to find his way early, Domi looks like a different player.
The timing is excellent for both player and team as the Maple Leafs desperately needed some juice from its bottom-six and Domi is playing for a new contract. If he's able to keep playing well at centre that will significantly benefit his bottom line.
The Robertson factor
The story of Domi's mini-resurgence in recent games cannot be told without giving significant credit to Robertson — who has brought a spark to the Maple Leafs lineup since getting promoted from the AHL on November 6.
Robertson has skated alongside Domi in each of his games at centre, and helped generate plenty of offence.
While Domi has played with strong finishers at times this season, his connection with Robertson has been instant and the 22-year-old is looking more than capable of depositing his best feeds in the net. He's been on the other end of two of Domi's assists and on another it was his work with his centre that allowed Järnkrok to bang in a rebound.
Domi and Järnkrok weren't able to do much with Kämpf between them. Robertson is the new element in the equation and his contribution has been significant.
How the new third line affects the rest of the team
For much of the season, finding a third line that works has been a Herculean task for the Maple Leafs. It's a corner the team backed itself into by signing Kämpf — a forth-line centre and defensive specialist — to third-line money ($2.4 million AAV) then spending all of its free-agent budget on wingers (Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi, Ryan Reaves) and one defenceman (John Klingberg).
The Maple Leafs opened the season giving Minten a chance to be the 3C, but after a quiet four games that experiment ended. Then, they opted to give Kämpf a go in the role, which asked too much of his limited offensive skill set. Neither option was effective and every third line the team trotted out struggled.
With the team's fourth-line groups also flailing, the bottom-six for Toronto was a disaster when November opened.
Below is a summary of how every line not centred by Auston Matthews or Taveras with at least 10 minutes of 5v5 ice time has fared. The new Robertson-Domi-Järnkork unit is the only one that's combined strong underlying numbers with promising results.
If you take the contributions of the new line away, the Maple Leafs' most common bottom-six configurations have been outshot 72-57 and outscored 8-3, with an expected goal rate of 39.3%.
The Robertson-Domi-Järnkork trio will come down to earth to some degree, but even after a relatively small sample of four games it seems safe to assume that this is the best group the Maple Leafs have got when one of their star centres isn't on the ice.
Prior to Toronto putting its new third-line together, it ranked 16th in the NHL in goal scoring (3.18 goals/game) despite the fact Matthews, Tavares, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner produced 26 goals and 55 points in the team's first 11 games.
The Maple Leafs are destined to be a top-heavy team this year, but even teams with as much star power as Toronto require depth scoring. It's too early to know exactly what a Domi-centred line can be expected to produce over a long stretch of games, but it's far more threatening than any group with Kämpf or Minten was before the 28-year-old stepped in.