Fixing slow starts could yield promising backup in Louis Domingue for Tampa
The Arizona Coyotes finally parted ways with goaltender Louis Domingue on Tuesday.
In a way, it was a long time coming. The relationship between Domingue and the Coyotes had been frosty at times since his 2016-17 campaign behind Mike Smith, when he wasn’t given time to get his game back where it needed to be – despite Smith getting multiple consecutive starts to fix his own problems.
It was just a quick statement, made in February in regards to why he just couldn’t get his numbers up. “I play once a month, and it wasn’t good enough. So I have zero answer.”
Head coach Dave Tippett argued in kind, suggesting that it’s hard to find a rhythm on one start per 10 games at a bare minimum. And Domingue’s numbers in the past certainly seemed to suggest that, as he was given heavier workloads down the back stretch (often during Mike Smith injuries or when his play outdid Smith’s) and saw his numbers skyrocket.
Four games with a sub-.900 save percentage (two with a sub-.800 save percentage) in his first five games of the 2016-17 season, and nine in his first 20 appearances.
By the end of the year, his numbers were almost completely opposite.
After going nearly a month without a start from mid-January to mid-February, Domingue played in 10 games from February 14th to April 6th. Of those, three were sub-.900 save percentages (although one of those three was a .897, just missing the cutoff) – but the other seven didn’t fall below a .923 in all situations.
His 2015-16 season was a bit more varied, but his three of his final five games that year boasted save percentages of .960 or above – and only two of his last nine games fell below the .900 marker.
For the Arizona Coyotes this year, that wasn’t good enough.
Domingue was the de facto starter when Antti Raanta missed nearly the first full month of the season with injury; the only options behind him were a first-year pro in Hunter Miska, depth option Marek Langhamer, or 21-year-old Adin Hill.
The team simply couldn’t finish games, and a large part of that was Domingue. There’s no way around that. While the team was finding ways to score – they scored first in almost all of their contests, and finished most of their games losing by just one goal – Domingue was putting up habitually poor early season numbers, and doing it when the team needed him to step up most.
Where some goaltenders still haven’t allowed a low-danger goal, Domingue allowed three in just seven games. Worse were his medium-danger saves – he boasted just an 83 percent save rate in that area, third-worst among goaltenders with 200 or more minutes played this year – and he had only stopped 63 percent of high-danger shots faced.
He wasn’t being inundated with those high-danger shots, either. The perception that Arizona’s defense was resoundingly failing him, statistically, doesn’t quite hold up; he faced just 5.4 high-danger shots per game, while goaltenders like Carey Price (6.9 per game), Al Montoya (9 per game), and Anton Forsberg (a whopping 10.6 per game) have all been dealt tougher workloads.
Although history shows he can get it together given some time, Arizona couldn’t find a win with him in net – so they hesitantly picked up a new number two in Scott Wedgewood, waiving Domingue and ultimately dealing him to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For Tampa Bay, though, this is a win-win scenario.
At the very worst, Domingue has a strong history of good statistics in the AHL. Michael Leighton, who had been making their starts for the Syracuse Crunch before he was sent back the other way in the Domingue deal, has just a .868 save percentage through nine games; Connor Ingram, his tandem partner, is faring even worse.
Domingue can easily bring them better results. His 2017 NHL numbers are his first sub-.900 statistics at any level of play since the 2013-14 season with the Portland Pirates, when he was 21 and just a second-year pro.
There’s a best-case scenario, as well. If they can fix his slow starts, Domingue can bring Tampa Bay more than just a capable AHL presence. In theory, he’s got all the makings of a solid number two behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Ingram, in theory, should pan out at that level as well. He’s just 20, and is currently in only his first pro season; although his early season AHL numbers are sub-optimal, he’s got plenty of time to fix that. His ECHL numbers are doing just fine; through three games with the Adirondack Thunder, he’s got a .960 in all situations.
This gives him time to get there. Rushing him won’t do Tampa much good, and he’s likely got another three to four years before he’ll be as good as they hope.
Enter Louis Domingue.
Domingue was the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in February of 2016 for a reason; he plays a conservative style based on positioning and efficient movement, staying within the blue paint and minimizing early drops for delayed lateral movement.
His problem to start the 2017-18 season was that he wasn’t setting to the shots well, and his lack of a flashy, pinwheel-highlight-desperation-save arsenal left him bleeding goals when he couldn’t absorb pucks using square blocks. He was dropping later than normal, leaving gaps in his post coverage, and getting set off-angle for one timers he had no business letting slip.
In theory, all it will take to get back to normal is a few minor adjustments to re-set his positioning, and he’ll be off and running. After all, that’s been how it goes each season before.
Of course, no team wants a goaltender that struggles to stop even the easiest of shots through the early months. As Arizona is showing in spectacularly dismal fashion, a string of poor games can quickly set the tone for a season no one wants to remember. If Tampa Bay puts Domingue behind Vasilevskiy and the starter gets hurt right off the bat, the Lightning find themselves in the position the Coyotes are in now.
It’s worth considering what could happen, though, if Tampa Bay manages to fix that problem.
This isn’t to discredit Arizona’s coaching staff. Jon Elkin, after all, has a handful of pupils in his repertoire that suggest he’s more than capable of teaching good habits.
It could be as simple as a fresh start. The way things ended with Domingue in Arizona may have, ultimately, been an underlying factor in his struggles – not for any malicious intent, but simply because he needed a new situation. Playing behind a rebuilding team during your own development years can lead to frustration and bad habits, and those can become hard to break in a situation that isn’t all that forgiving.
While there’s no guarantee, though, it’s an easy gamble for Tampa Bay to take. Aside from Kris Oldham – who isn’t posting great numbers in the NCAA – the team has no goaltending depth left.
If this pays off, they’ve solved a very relevant problem.