GLENDALE, Ariz. — The biggest surprise of the Coyotes’ season almost didn’t materialize. In late July, Christian Daigle, the agent for restricted free-agent goaltender Louis Domingue, gave general manager Don Maloney a choice.
“His agent called up and said Louis is going to Europe if he doesn’t get a one-way contract,” Maloney said. “We offered him congrats and basically said ‘bon voyage.'”
“It wasn’t that we didn’t want Louis. We knew we would still own his rights and we liked Louis. We have always liked him as a prospect, but going into the season we did not see him as bona fide NHL player yet.”
Among the possibilities Domingue said he was considering was playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. The decision came to a head in mid-August while Domingue was playing in a tournament in Quebec that featured many NHL players. A friend of his told him he had the tools to play in the NHL so he should think long and hard before heading to Europe.
“It came to a point where I just called Don myself,” Domingue said. “I just put my heart out to him, showing him that I wanted to be part of the success with the young kids coming and the young talent we have in the organization.
“I just called him and I said: ‘you know what. I’ll come join the team. Whatever it takes. If the offer is still on the table I’d love to be in camp in September.'”
Despite a strong training camp, Domingue knew he would start the season in the American Hockey League, but that one-year, two-way $605,000 contract he signed ended up being a critical component in the Coyotes’ first-half success. With starter Mike Smith out until at least February following abdominal surgery, and with backup Anders Lindback struggling, Domingue has seized his opportunity with both gloves.
In eight starts this season, the rookie has stopped 250 of 264 shots for a .947 save percentage with two shutouts. The Coyotes are 6-0-2 in those games and sit firmly in second place in the Pacific Division at the season’s midpoint.
“He just looks calm out there,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s in position all the time. It doesn’t look like there’s a big scramble any time. He’s just dialed in right now.”
Domingue spent a chunk of last season with the Coyotes after they dealt backup Devan Dubnyk to the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline. But the Coyotes wanted Smith to play through his struggles last season so, as Maloney put it, Domingue “basically wore a ball cap and ate popcorn.”
Even that experience was beneficial, Domingue said.
“It’s always good to see how it works around here,” he said. “Being around the NHL you kind of grow as a hockey player just by being around and participating.
“Every day I’m here I gain more experience and that goes in my bank; my tool box and I can use it along the way.”
Domingue had a 2.73 goals against average and a .911 save percentage last season. He also recorded his first NHL victory in a 3-2 win Feb. 1 in Montreal, which is near his hometown of Saint-Hyacinthe.
“(Then-goalie coach) Sean Burke told me after my first win in Montreal: ‘You don’t make a career out of one win,'” Domingue said. “It kind of triggered something in my mind. If you work even harder the day after a win, things are going to get easier and easier along the way.”
Domingue said he has worked hard to hone his game in practices.
“I got sent down one time when they said my game was good enough but my practices needed to be better,” he said. “I’m still trying to elevate to that level every day.”
He has also done a better job of managing the emotional swings that sometimes derailed his focus earlier in his career, like when he faced his former QMJHL coach, Patrick Roy, who now coaches the Colorado Avalanche.
As the media attention increases and the impressive performances stack up, that may prove harder, but Domingue said he is doing his best to stay levelheaded.
“I’m aware but I’m not making too much out of that because it can end like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I don’t want to have to build back what I am building so I am trying to go day by day and shot by shot. I’m not even going out there and thinking about what can happen in the third period or the second period. I’m just almost trying to win three games when I go out there.”
If Domingue continues his recent play, Tippett will have an interesting decision to make when Smith returns. After Saturday’s 4-0 win over Nashville, a reporter asked Tippett how large Domingue’s sample size has to be before it’s no longer too small to signal a trend.
“We’ve got some time before Smitty comes back,” Tippett said, smiling. “He’s not doing anything to hurt his chances.”
Oilers at Coyotes
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Gila River Arena
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Radio: ESPN 620 AM
Season series: Coyotes lead, 1-0-1.
Probable goalies: Coyotes — Louis Domingue. Oilers — Cam Talbot.
Injury report: Coyotes — G Mike Smith (abdominal surgery) and F Joe Vitale (concussion symptoms) are out. Oilers — C Connor McDavid (IR, collarbone), D Oscar Klefbom (IR, finger) and D Andrew Ference (IR, undisclosed). F Nail Yakupov (ankle) is expected to play.
Scouting the Oilers: C Connor McDavid is nearing a return from a broken collarbone … F Matt Hendricks was suspended three games by the Department of Player Safety for his hit on Florida’s Aaron Ekblad on Sunday. … F Taylor
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