The Phoenix Coyotes have found themselves in a great spot at the close of the preseason.
They have two young players, Max Domi and Lucas Lessio, battling for a roster spot. Both are just steps away from being full-on NHL-caliber players. The team is likely to assign one to a minor league team before Sept. 30, the deadline to trim the roster ahead of the regular season.
Before I begin my argument, I’m going to come out and say it: Domi is a better hockey player than Lessio.
But it’s Lessio the Phoenix Coyotes should keep on their roster to take the open left wing spot.
Domi is arguably one of the most exciting prospects to come out of the Coyotes in years. He has soft hands, skills and vision. He knows where he’s supposed to be at all times on the ice. To be frank, I think he has everything it takes to become an NHL star for years to come. But right now, he’s not NHL-ready.
Domi is simply not strong enough. When I watch him play, I’m reminded of another young star on the Coyotes: Oliver Ekman-Larsson. When he first made his appearance for the Coyotes, everyone was buzzing about him. His talent was obvious. Everything about him was ready to make the jump except his strength. After getting stronger, OEL is now entering the fringes of the Norris Trophy talk at the ripe old age of 22. Strength and power go a long way in the NHL.
The Coyotes play a physical, disciplined system to win. They rely on everyone to carry their share of the load and that often involves using their body to either keep the puck or get it back. This is something that Domi will be able to do one day, but not now. At 18, he’s still developing into a man and the player he will become.
This is not to say that Domi is years away from the top. Anyone who has seen his father, Tie Domi, play knows the strength that runs in the Domi family. Tie was a feared enforcer for years in the NHL. If you pair Tie’s strength with Max’s skill, that’s a combination that won’t be kept out of the NHL for long.
Despite the popularity and excitement surrounding Domi, the Coyotes are not exactly settling when it comes to Lessio. He has averaged more than one point per game in each professional season — save for last year, when he was injured. He has the size, speed and, most importantly, the strength to be an NHL forward. He looks comfortable on multiple lines and, should he be asked to step in as the left wing for Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata, he has the stamina needed to put in plenty of ice time.
Like Domi, Lessio also has an eye for goal. During Friday’s preseason game against San Jose, Lessio was noticeable on the ice and involved in several threats. He even clanked one off the crossbar when trying to go top shelf.
But for what Lessio lacks in skill compared to Domi, he makes up for it with size, force and experience. He spent last season (again, while injured) with the Portland Pirates in the AHL. He has had time to adjust to the Coyotes organization and speed of the professional game. Essentially, he’s ready.
The best thing about this entire debate? If Lessio fails to develop the way the Coyotes hoped, the team is not left out to dry like they were last year with Steve Sullivan. They can find another Coyote to patch the hole, likely Lauri Korpikoski. Or the team could pursue a trade.
The Coyotes find themselves in a unique situation: Choose between two great prospects or consider a trade. While I admittedly tend to lean towards trades, both Lessio and Domi are players that can be molded into the Coyotes’ system. Neither has clearly won the battle. One is simply a touch more NHL-ready than the other.
Give Lessio his shot now. Domi’s will come soon.
Note: A past version of this story said Domi could be recalled by the Coyotes. That would not be the case as he would be sent to his junior team, not the AHL. NHL rules state that Domi would then spend the entire season in juniors.