GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes’ roster is nearly complete, but the big question for general manager Don Maloney, coach Dave Tippett and their staffs remains: What to do with top pick Max Domi?
“It’s almost a day-by-day discussion,” Maloney said. “To his credit, he’s really made the decision difficult.”
The Coyotes reduced their roster to 25 on Thursday by reassigning forwards Andy Miele and Jordan Szwarz to Portland of the AHL, while releasing forward Gilbert Brulé from his pro tryout agreement.
If defenseman Rusty Klesla (concussion) begins the season on injured reserve, which is likely, the Coyotes will need to make one more roster move to get down to the requisite 23 players by the Sept. 30 (2 p.m.) deadline. Players on IR do not count against the 23-man roster.
With Klesla out, Maloney said the Coyotes will keep eight defenseman on the opening-day roster, which means both David Rundblad and Chris Summers will stick until Klesla returns, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, David Schlemko and Michael Stone holding down the other six spots.
The forward lines are nearly set. For now, Mike Ribeiro will center the first line between wings Shane Doan and Mikkel Boedker, while it appears Antoine Vermette will center the third line between Lauri Korpikoski and David Moss and Kyle Chipchura will center the fourth line between Rob Klinkhammer and Chris Brown, who has impressed the coaches enough with his versatility and maturity to lock down a roster spot. Suspended enforcer Paul Bissonnette is the final forward.
What is still up in the air is whether the Coyotes keep Domi or Lucas Lessio. If Lessio stays, it’s likely that he will play left wing on the third line, with Korpikoski moving up to the second line, although the players are somewhat interchangeable on the left side.
“From Day 1 in camp, Lucas has willed himself onto our roster with hard work,” Maloney said. “We’ve been waiting to see a drop-off and we haven’t seen one, so he’s probably the most pleasant surprise in camp.”
Lessio’s tenacity has been his calling card in the preseason and in camp.
“He’s going to the hard areas, and he’s physically strong enough to compete, but it’s not just that,” Maloney said. “We always knew he had great energy and a willingness to work, but when he gets the puck, he’s making good decisions with it.”
Maloney said Lessio could play on any of the four lines, but if Domi stays, it would have to be among the top six forwards, likely on the second line with center Martin Hanzal and right wing Radim Vrbata.
“He needs to be in offensive situations with offensive players, and he needs to get enough ice time to warrant being here,” Maloney said. “He’s not a guy who is going to sit around on the third or fourth line.”
Domi’s style is probably the best fit alongside Vrbata, who scored 35 goals when he played with playmaking wing Ray Whitney two seasons ago.
“He adds a dynamic skill element, similar to when we talk about Ribeiro,” Tippett said of Domi. “He’s got the ability to help players around him be better players.”
But Tippett acknowledged that structure, reading opponents and reading game situations are all areas where Domi is inexperienced, which has led the Coyotes to continue their evaluation.
“Attention to detail is huge, and Tip obviously has a game plan,” Domi said. “It’s tougher to follow earlier on in training camp and the preseason, but as you get more comfortable and used to everyone around you and get the chemistry going, then you start buying into the whole thing.”
Tippett said he does not envision Domi remaining on a lengthy tryout (he can play up to nine games before his NHL contract kicks in), but it is possible that Domi could stick beyond the season opener to give the Coyotes more time to decide before returning him to juniors with London of the OHL.
Making matters more difficult for Phoenix is the logjam on defense. When Klesla returns, the Coyotes will have nine NHL defenseman on one-way contracts. In order to return one of them to Portland, they would first have to expose that player to waivers and risk losing him to another team.
Maloney acknowledged that dilemma and added that the Coyotes also are hoping to find ice time this season for defensive prospects Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy.
All of that depth raises the possibility of a trade, and Maloney said Thursday that the team is exploring that avenue. Any deal would likely require a top-six forward in return, which would likely mean another year in juniors for Domi.
“It may take a bigger deal, to be honest with you, because nobody is handing out top-tier players,” Maloney said. “We haven’t found what we need yet. That could change in a hurry, but at least we like our other options. We don’t feel like we’re forcing something into our lineup at all.”