Max Domi's early return to the Blue Jackets lineup should be welcome news for a coaching staff that is looking to figure out how to allocate resources.
In his first and only preseason game, Domi made an impact, scoring a goal on a beautiful one-timer off a Cole Sillinger feed. And now that the opening night roster is set, it appears that Domi will be a part of the club's plans from day one.
Peep that Sillinger pic.twitter.com/SnZy50GC0D— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) October 10, 2021
Domi would be the first to admit that he didn't put his best foot forward in 2020-21, his first season as a member of the Blue Jackets, but the past is behind him. A fresh start, with a (mostly) new coaching staff, could be the catalyst for change.
Missing the start of a regular season can be brutal. By the time a player is back in the lineup, the rest of the NHL is in full stride. For many, it can be impossible to catch back up. Domi's earlier-than-anticipated availability could also be a reason for optimism.
But more than anything, Domi's return to the lineup should allow the dominos to fall in place with more purpose. With Oliver Bjorkstrand, Patrik Laine, Jakub Voracek, and Gus Nyquist, the Blue Jackets are relatively set at top-six winger. Others, like Yegor Chinakhov, Emil Bemstrom, and Gregory Hofmann, could also be in line for top-nine minutes on the wing. But there are plenty of question marks at center, and Domi could be the answer. As it stands today, I feel confident penciling in Sean Kuraly as a bottom-six center and Jack Roslovic as a top-six center (at least, to start). But that leaves, let's say, the 1C and 3C center slot open. Could that be Domi?
Boone Jenner, Alexandre Texier, and Sillinger can all play center, but none of them are natural fits at the 1C slot. Jenner is better suited for the wing, and playing someone like Jenner alongside, say, Voracek and Laine, seems like the wrong call. Texier has been 'just ok' so far this preseason, and realistically shouldn't be gifted such a prestigious role just yet. The Sillinger hype train has left the station, and it wouldn't be surprising if he played as the top-line center, a fourth-line winger, and in the AHL in the next 60 days. But does the club really want him as their 1C heading into the season?
That leaves Domi, who is far from a perfect 1C, himself. For starters, a theoretical line of Voracek-Domi-Laine would be electric with the puck, but a nightmare without it. As our Ed Francis projects, playing Domi as a 3C alongside Jenner and Chinakhov solves some of those issues. Jenner would be tasked with aiding Domi's defensive game, and Chinakhov's offensive instincts give Domi a lethal shooter. But that would leave Sillinger and Roslovic as the top two centers. No matter how the coaching staff pieces the lineup together, the unfortunate truth is that the club's personnel all but ensures difficult matchup decisions.
Domi is at something of a crossroads in his career. A pending UFA after this year, the 26-year old is looking to rekindle his career. After a 72-point campaign in 2018-19, Domi has struggled to regain that form. With a full season ahead of him and a glorious opportunity to play as high as 1C, Domi needs to prove that he is still thought of as a top-six player. And he won't have a better chance to show that than he does this season.