Following Friday’s preseason finale against the San Jose Sharks, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said the team would likely take the weekend to decide between forwards Lucas Lessio and Max Domi for the club’s final roster spot. But if you were listening closely to Tippett’s and general manager Don Maloney’s language, the decision had already been made.
That decision was confirmed when Domi tweeted this early Saturday afternoon:
Lessio impressed the staff with his tenacity, speed, puck management and work ethic. He also won some hearts with his decision to play through a nondisplaced fracture in his foot. But just as important in this decision was the Coyotes’ awareness of history.
Maloney has talked repeatedly about the mistakes of the past, when the organization rushed youngsters Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker into the lineup too fast, thereby setting back their development.
Phoenix didn’t want to make the same mistake with Domi, who has elite skills that might benefit the team right now but an utter lack of experience, as well as some issues with strength and an understanding of the concepts required of a Dave Tippett-coached player.
“We just felt… it was best for him to go back and continue to grow his game,” Tippett told reporters on Saturday. “He just needs to get just a little stronger and wiser. He’s going to be a great NHL player for a long time.”
Domi will head back to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League to play another year of juniors. Maybe that’s all it will take, but the Coyotes didn’t want to rush that process.
It’s pretty clear the Coyotes are impressed with Lessio. Here’s what Maloney said about him on Thursday.
“From Day 1 in camp, Lucas has willed himself onto our roster with hard work. 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.
“He’s going to the hard areas, and he’s physically strong enough to compete, but it’s not just that. 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.”
The problem with keeping Lessio is that the Coyotes still don’t have the left wing they truly need or want for the second line. Maloney said Lessio could play up and down the lineup, but he doesn’t have Domi’s skill set, so it’s likely that Lauri Korpikoski will play on the second line with center Martin Hanzal and right wing Radim Vrbata.
That means Vrbata still won’t have the setup man he needs to make him a dangerous goal scorer. When he played with Ray Whitney two seasons ago, he had 35 goals.
The Coyotes will say all the right things about the strength of their current lineup, but in keeping Lessio and sliding Korpikoski up, the Coyotes are settling for less than they want. And that could lead them to pursue a trade for a top-six forward.
Maloney said Thursday that the team hasn’t found the right deal yet and that it may take a bigger deal to make it happen. Maybe the Coyotes will wait until defenseman Rusty Klesla returns from a concussion before dealing from their position of depth: defense.
When Klesla returns (he will begin the season on IR), the Coyotes will have nine defensemen on the roster and none can return to Portland (AHL) before clearing waivers, so the Coyotes would risk losing one of them to another team. That may be the reality that forces their hand into a trade.
As for Domi, the decision to send him back to juniors was a prudent one. You could see flashes of his skill Friday against the Sharks, but there were also mistakes, and as Tippett noted, you would have liked to have seen him generate more offense than he did.
The Coyotes made the right decision with Domi, but if they truly want to assert themselves as a contender in a Western Conference loaded with elite teams, they are still one piece away.