Domi chips away amid slow start with Leafs
The Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning practised at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon, Fla., on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game.
"That's got to be some sort of record, no?" the winger said. "Four icings in one shift. I don't think I've had four icings in my whole career."
It was the latest star-crossed moment for Domi as he navigates a slow start with the team he long dreamed of playing for.
"They were putting on a lot of pressure with the pinch [by defencemen]," the son of former Leaf Tie Domi said. "Obviously you don't want to ice it four times in a row but, at the same time, you don't want it to end up in your net so sometimes that's all you got. You got to stay with it and that's just part of the game within the game."
Before the game, Sheldon Keefe had observed that Domi is searching for confidence. He has just five shots on net so far and one secondary assist in four games this season.
"He's got a lot going on in his head," the Leafs coach said. "I think over time he'll settle in and we'll see more of his instincts come to the forefront."
After posting 56 points last season while playing for the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars, Domi signed a one-year, $3-million deal with the Leafs in the summer. He started on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander, but did not click with that duo.
Domi hasn't been on the ice for an even-strength goal by the Leafs yet and has been on for three against. He's averaging 12 minutes and 49 seconds of ice time, which is down from 14 minutes and 51 seconds with the Stars in the playoffs.
"Every day you're just trying to keep chipping away at it and get more and more comfortable and feel sound within the systems," Domi said. "It's always a process so, I mean, we're what? Four games in right now so no need to hit the panic button at all."
It’s been a long time coming Toronto… LFG! 🔵⚪️ pic.twitter.com/bUzIe519M2— Max Domi (@maxdomi) October 10, 2023
Is Domi trying too hard?
"I mean, listen, you always want to have success right away," the 28-year-old said. "That's just the nature of human beings. No one wants to fall down a bunch of times, but without failure or mess ups or screw ups, you're never going to have success. That's how you learn. Part of growing up and being mature is being able to handle that stuff in stride. It's an honour to wear this jersey. It's an honour to be on a team as good as this team. Just keep building and keep having fun and it will come."
Domi started Thursday's game with rookie Fraser Minten and Calle Jarnkrok. Most of his 5-on-5 minutes came with David Kampf and Tyler Bertuzzi after Keefe shuffled the lines in the second period. At practice on Friday, Domi skated beside Kampf and Jarnkrok.
"It looked really good in the short time I used it in different parts of the game yesterday," said Keefe. "Today, in practice, it looked really good. I am really intrigued by it."
Shot attempts favoured the Leafs 4-0 in the one minute of ice time that trio played together on Thursday, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"Kampf had his best game of the early going last night," Keefe continued. "It seems like everywhere Jarnkork has been, [it] has been one of our best lines. Having those two guys with Max gives us three very experienced players in the league. It should really help us."
"Davy's really good at both ends of the rink," said Domi. "And so is Jarny. Both of them can shoot. Both of them can get to the cage. Gotta make some plays, hang onto the puck and generate some more extended O-zone time and [keep the] transition game sound and we should be good."
Domi is playing for his seventh team in the NHL so he has plenty experience adapting to new environments.
"Playing for a guy like Pete DeBoer [in Dallas] or Rod Brind'Amour [in Carolina] after the deadline, both those guys the common denominator was, 'We're going to throw a lot of stuff at you early and take the next 20 games to get ready to go, because when the puck drops for Game 1 [in the playoffs] that's when we'll need you to be able to execute at a high level,'" Domi recalled. "Not saying it's going to take 20 games, but that's kind of the mindset. It does takes time."
Domi is one of six forwards in the Leafs lineup, who didn't start the season with the team last year.
"It's not one of those things where all the sudden you snap your fingers and everything just clicks, especially when there's a lot of new faces," Domi said. "Nice to hit a little adversity early in the year. It's a good time to do it and good time to build some good chemistry."
Bertuzzi, another new forward, has been playing on the top line beside Auston Matthews on Mitch Marner. But, in the second period on Thursday, Keefe dropped him down the lineup.
"Bert is less than 100 per cent right now," the coach explained. "It was very clear from the pace of the game, the competitiveness, and the difficulty of the matchups that whoever was going to play with Auston and Mitch needed a lot. I thought lightening Bert's load would be beneficial to him."
Bertuzzi, who signed a one-year, $5.5-million deal in the summer, missed Wednesday's practice and didn't know for sure he'd be able to play on Thursday until game time. He was back on the ice and back on the top line at Friday's workout.
"I feel a lot better," he said of the nagging undisclosed injury, which was aggravated in Monday's loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. "I feel good going into tomorrow."
Bertuzzi was all smiles in celebrating several goals with Marner and Matthews during practice.
"We felt good today," the Sudbury, Ont., native said. "Puck was going in and we were moving the puck well. Practices like this help the chemistry."
Bertuzzi has yet to produce an even-strength point and has put just one shot on net in the last two games. He's also taken five minor penalties.
"It is a work in progress for sure," Keefe acknowledged of the top-line chemistry. "Bert has been really effective below the circles, which is what he does and who he is. Auston and Mitch need to consistently get the puck to those areas. I think you'll see it start to thrive ... Playing with Auston and Mitch, it is harder to adjust to the pace and the skill that they play with coming out of our zone."
Matthews has six goals on the season, but only two in 5-on-5 play.
"He's easy to play with," Matthews said of Bertuzzi. "As we get more repetitions together as a line we'll just have a better idea of where each other likes to be at and just find that chemistry a little bit easier."
"We've had our looks with Bert," Marner stressed. "It just hasn't worked right now. I'm sure there's no panic mode on that at all. We know it will eventually."
After scoring 12 goals in the first two games, the Leafs have been held to one goal in consecutive games. What's the key to scoring more?
"Everybody being on the same page and clicking a little bit better," Matthews said. "I mean it's just reading off each other a little bit better and maybe simplifying some stuff, getting some more pucks to the net and trying to outnumber [the opposition]."
"We want to produce more," Keefe said. "We had some really good looks yesterday that didn't fall for us. Part of it is staying with it, not getting frustrated and all of that."
Despite losing on Thursday, the Leafs felt they played well defensively. Now, it's about finding a balance.
"We look at wins and losses, but we feel a lot better about a game like this than when we're giving up six or seven goals," veteran defenceman Mark Giordano said following the 3-1 loss in Florida. "So, got to look at the positives."
"You shift your focus and change gears to focus on the defensive side and last night was our best defensive effort by far," Keefe said. "Offensively, it becomes more of a challenge. That is the early going here. You can't touch on and be great at everything. You have to prioritize your areas, especially with so many new people. We will get there."
After being recalled from the American Hockey League, Pontus Holmberg skated as the fourth-line centre at practice.
"He's unbelievable," said Matthews. "He's sneaky skilled and has such good touches with the puck and has a really good brain on the ice. Any time he's been up with us he's always played really solid at both ends of the ice."
Holmberg produced 13 points in 38 games with the Leafs last season.
"It seemed like he maybe hit a wall in the second half of the season," Keefe said of the 24-year-old Swede. "To me, it wasn't the same player that we had earlier in the season. As the league gets harder and harder, most players are going to go through that. I think he did. He should be better for that experience."
Holmberg didn't stand out at training camp, which allowed Minten to steal a bottom-six centre job.
"To be honest, I thought his camp was a little underwhelming after we had come to expect him to be a good player for us last year," Keefe stated bluntly. "In the early part of last season, he was really good and really consistent for us. I don't think he asserted himself the way we want to see him in training camp. Also, the emergence of guys like Minten, [Easton] Cowan, and those kinds of players — for a lot of the camp, they outplayed him, quite frankly. Now you are giving those young guys opportunities that maybe he would've had. That is part of it as well: recognizing that this is a difficult league to play in and a difficult team to make."
After playing just eight minutes and 47 seconds on Thursday, Minten skated as the 13th forward at practice.
"Just continue to get better," Keefe said of his message. "Take every day and every experience as a chance for him to improve and adapt. Stay positive. Have fun. Enjoy it all ... Everything for him is gravy. He is here learning and taking it all in. He has done a good job."
The 19-year-old surprised himself and the Leafs by making the team out of camp. It's been a whirlwind past month and that may be catching up with the Vancouver native.
"There has been a lot happening in his life," Keefe pointed out. "First, he has played a lot of hockey from Traverse City [rookie camp] through to training camp through to the preseason games and now the early going."
If the Leafs decide to send Minten back to the Western Hockey League, he's expected to wear the 'C' for the Kamloops Blazers.
The Leafs are returning to Tampa for the first time since clinching their first-round playoff series last April. What does Mikhail Sergachev remember about the series?
"Probably that we lost and [had] a long summer," the Lightning defenceman said. "So, yeah, that's probably what they feel every year."
The Lightning eliminated the Leafs one year earlier en route to making a third straight Stanley Cup final. So, the rivalry between Toronto and Tampa Bay is heating up.
"I do think there's a bit of a budding one with the two of us," Lightning coach Jon Cooper agreed. "When you play teams in the playoffs multiple years in a row there's a little fire in both teams."
The divisional clash takes on even more meaning this season because the gap between the playoff incumbents and challengers in the Atlantic Division appears to be closing. The Lightning just lost to the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres during a recent road trip.
"With the teams in our division that are chasing us, all the sudden, these games become a little bit more magnified," Cooper said. "Any time Toronto and Tampa get together they are fun games."
Saturday will also be Tampa Bay's first game against a team that made the playoffs last season. It's the first true measuring-stick opportunity.
"I'm sure there's a little bit of something in this dressing room that wants to see where we're at and what we're up against in our division," said winger Brandon Hagel.
The Leafs will be playing the second game of a five-game road trip. The Lightning will be playing the second game of a five-game home stand. Tampa Bay has won both home games they've played this season.
After allowing nine goals while winning his first two starts, Ilya Samsonov surrendered just two goals on 23 shots while suffering his first loss of the season on Thursday.
"Result is not too great, but I feel my game a little bit better, moving better," he said. "We don't have time for crying because we have too many games on this road trip."
Keefe called Samsonov's performance "solid" and feels the 26-year-old goalie is making progress after a sluggish start. The coach highlighted some important saves when the team was shorthanded. However, much like in May's second-round series, Samsonov was outplayed by Sergei Bobrovsky, who stopped 29 of 30 shots.
"The two goals came from distance," Keefe noted. "I would like to see him find a way to get one of those for us, especially when the guy at the other end is not giving you much."
While both goals came from distance, there was some traffic in front.
"I didn't see first goal and second, too," Samsonov said. "Maybe I need to buy some glasses."
Samsonov, who is now 2-1-0 with an .861 save percentage, was the first goalie off the ice at Friday's practice and is expected to start once again in Tampa.
Jonas Johansson, who is 2-1-1 with an .894 save percentage, will start for the Lightning, Cooper confirmed.
"He's calm in there," said Sergachev. "That's one thing I'm looking for in a goalie. When the goalie is calm, defenceman is calm and everyone is playing confident. He's been confident and that's helped us a lot."
The Lightning will lean on Johansson while Andrei Vasilevskiy recovers from a microdiscectomy to address a lumbar disk herniation.
"Vasilevskiy is irreplaceable," said Cooper. "He's one of kind so it's got to be a bit of a collective effort here. The goalies have done a fantastic job for us. As a whole, if I look at our team defence, I take two periods away, second period Nashville and second period in Detroit, and I haven't minded the way we've played without the puck. If we're giving our goalies a chance to stop pucks and limiting some of these chances ... we'll take it."
Vasilevskiy is expected back in late November or early December.
The Lightning scored two power-play goals in Thursday's win over the Vancouver Canucks and have now converted on 31.3 per cent of their chances this season, which is fifth in the league. So, Saturday's game will be the first big challenge for Toronto's new look penalty kill, which features Matthews in a regular role for the first time.
"It's been solid," Matthews said. "It's still a work in progress. I still find myself out there a little hesitant at times. But when we're able to break-up plays and it turns into hockey ... I think it's been going really well. There's a lot of room for improvement still but it's definitely been a good challenge and a lot of fun."
Matthews and Marner are hopping over the boards as Toronto's second unit. The dynamic duo was so effective on Thursday that shot attempts favoured the Leafs 3-2 in the two minutes and 34 seconds they played shorthanded, per NaturalStatTrick.com. Matthews generated a scoring chance and drew a penalty during one of those shifts.
"We have liked it," said Keefe. "We have some other guys who are new to it as well. The reps in the zone — defending, having good sticks, the different reads, and taking what is talked about in the meetings to the ice — are all part of it. That will continue to come and grow. The other part is that he has broken up plays, he has gotten the puck back and we have killed the penalty through offensive play. Last night was probably the best example of that. He will continue to get better at it. The biggest thing is that he seems to just really enjoy it. If a player of that calibre is bought in and wants to be a part of it, he will find a way to make it work well."
Lines at Friday's Leafs practice:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Knies - Tavares - Nylander
Domi - Kampf - Jarnkrok
Gregor - Holmberg - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Liljegren
Giordano - Klingberg
Lines at Friday's Lightning practice:
Barre-Boulet - Point - Kucherov
Stamkos - Cirelli -Hagel
Jeannot - Paul - Merela
Sheary - Glendening - Eyssimont
Hedman - Cernak
Sergachev - Raddysh
Watson - Perbix
Fleury - Bogosian