GLENDALE, Ariz. – Ask Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney which of his young players has the biggest surprise of what has been a surprising first half of the 2015-16 season and one name leapfrogs to the head of a deserving list of candidates.
"Hands down, no question, Louis Domingue," Maloney said. "And he's done it at position and at a time when we really needed it."
Domingue has emerged as an unexpected stabilizing force in goal and has allowed the Coyotes to surprise much of the hockey world by being in the race for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the rugged Western Conference more than halfway through the season.
There are certainly other surprises fueling the success story unfolding in the desert.
Goalie - ARI
GAA: 2.14 | SVP: .932
Rookie forwards Anthony Duclair
and Max Domi
have combined for 25 goals and 55 points through 42 games. Forward Tobias Rieder
has already set a new NHL high with 26 points, and rookie Jordan Martinook
has gone from a training camp afterthought to a solid third-liner playing in all situations.
But, Domingue has trumped all those revelations.
The Coyotes were treading water in the Western Conference playoff race on Dec. 15 when No. 1 goalie Mike Smith had abdominal surgery and was lost for at least two months. Suddenly goaltending, which had been inconsistent at best during the first 10 weeks of the season, went from a question mark to an exclamation point of uncertainty.
Backup Anders Lindback naturally assumed the No. 1 role after the injury to Smith, but the Coyotes needed a new backup and were concerned about its depth.
Domingue's recall from Springfield of the American Hockey League was the natural, reflexive move to provide immediate cover, but its viability as a long-term solution was anything but clear.
Other solutions were explored, Maloney said, especially after Lindback struggled in his new role. Inquiries for a proven backup intensified. But, while the Coyotes scrambled for solutions, Domingue, 23, went about proving the answer had arrived.
Nine starts later, Domingue is 7-0-2 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. The Coyotes are in second place in the Pacific Division, four points clear of the chasing pack. Maloney is spending more time watching his new goalie rather than looking for another one.
"At the end of the day I knew I could play here," Domingue said. "I took a big step in my game, my confidence level. I practiced better and I'm trying to elevate that every day.
"Maybe they doubted I could do it. But I came to camp with the attitude that I wanted to show them that I belonged here and could be part of this team."
Domingue came very close to not being a part of Arizona's plans at all. During the summer, his camp suggested the then restricted free agent would go play in Europe if he was not given a one-way contract after finishing the 2014-15 season on the NHL roster, seeing action in the first seven NHL games of his career.
"We offered him congrats and basically said, 'Bon voyage,'" Maloney said. "We liked him as a prospect but not as an NHL player at that point. He played a few games and basically sat at the end of the bench and ate popcorn. We wanted him to continue playing. If that was in Europe, as far as we were concerned, that was fine."
Domingue had a change of heart during the summer, realizing how close he was to his dream.
"I just put my heart out to [Maloney]," Domingue said. "I told him that I wanted to be part of the success with the young kids coming and the young talent we have in the organization. If the offer is still on the table I'd love to be in camp in September."
Despite a potential glut of goalies in the organization, Maloney agreed and signed Domingue to a one-year, two-way contract for $605,000.
Concerns about his work ethic and the control he had on his emotions were two hurdles the goalie knew he had to overcome to advance.
"When I was in the NHL last year, I didn't play a lot but I learned so much," he said. "I learned about how to not get too confident and to keep working hard. [Former Coyotes goalie coach] Sean Burke told me after my first win in Montreal that, 'You don't make a career out of one win,' and that triggered something in my mind. I figured out if you work even harder the day after a win, things are going to go easier and easier."
The change in mindset was immediately evident.
"You could see that he was ready, he'd put in the work and he had an excellent training camp," Maloney said. "He had worked hard to improve."
Domingue was the odd-man out when camp ended, but Coyotes coach Tippett felt confident he had three goalies that could play at the NHL level.
"He came in this year with a lot to prove," Tippett said. "Now he's back up, he's got his opportunity and he's run with it."
One of the most obvious characteristics of Domingue's game is a smooth and active glove hand; honed by playing baseball for hours and hours with his father, Charles, from the time he was old enough to walk
"We have a big backyard at home and after dinner I would bug him until he took me out and throw me some grounders," he said, noting he played organized baseball until three years ago. "I would have grass stains all over my pants and my mom would flip because I was so dirty. Whether it was baseball or hockey, I just couldn't get enough."
Domingue has two shutouts in his eight starts, tying a Coyotes rookie record. The Gila River Arena crowd chants "Looooou" after big saves. Charles Domingue is running out of motivational texts to send his son before games.
It's everything Domingue envisioned while watching from the bench last year.
"I'm aware but I'm not making too much of it because it can end like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "And to me, I don't want to have to build it back up. I'm just trying to go day by day and shot by shot and not thinking what will happen even in the next period. I'm almost trying to win three games every night. If I do that I'll be fine."