Future looks bright for Coyotes

Coyotes GM Don Maloney said Max Domi could make his regular-season NHL debut later this season. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Coyotes were on their way home from a preseason road trip in September when a team staffer wandered to the back of the plane and told Max Domi and a handful of other prospects sitting together that general manager Don Maloney wanted to see them the next day.

Uh oh.

"We all four of us kind of knew it," Domi told ESPN.com recently.

A day and a half later, Domi was back in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the London Knights.

"Yeah, it kind of sucks," Domi said of getting sent back to junior.

Many hockey observers would have bet heavily that Domi wouldn't have gotten the tap on the shoulder that every prospect in an NHL camp hates.

"I wish we, as the owners, could take credit for the decision," said Anthony LeBlanc, co-owner and president of the Coyotes.

He admits he was among those who thought Domi would be on the Coyotes' roster this season.

"But we have to let our hockey guys make the decisions," LeBlanc told ESPN.com. "That just shows completely that they know what they're talking about.

"It was absolutely the right call."

Maloney and the coaching staff also sent a message back to London with Domi, the gifted son of former NHL tough guy Tie Domi.

Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett took Max Domi aside and told him he could take the demotion one of two ways: He could be ticked off like he was the previous season, or he could continue being an NHLer while playing junior hockey. That meant practicing like he was preparing for an NHL game, playing like he was in an NHL game and behaving as if he were an NHL player, Tippett told Domi.

"I really took that to heart," Domi said.

Domi, the 12th-overall pick by the Coyotes in 2013, was a bit sour a year earlier when he was sent down.

And his play reflected it.

"At first you're really disappointed and you're really mad and kind of confused and not really sure [how] to handle it," Domi admitted.

"And I didn't handle it the best way. I didn't play the way I should."

He quickly learned "you can't be sleeping behind the wheel," the 19-year-old said. His attitude and play eventually improved as he ran roughshod over the competition with 93 points in 61 OHL games.

Shortly after returning to London this season, Domi was asked to take on the captaincy.

He excelled in that role and was named to Canada's world junior championship team. He finished the tournament playing on the top line with top NHL prospects Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair, was named the top forward in the tournament and was named to the tournament All-Star team after Canada's dramatic win over Russia in the gold-medal game.

Among Domi's teammates was a kid named Connor McDavid.

Maybe you've heard of him?

In a draft being hyped for its generational talent, McDavid is the next "it" kid who's virtually assured of being taken first overall in June.

Domi has tried to share his experience with players soon to follow in his footsteps, like McDavid and London teammate Mitchell Marner, who could end up being Domi's teammates again on a much bigger stage.

Which brings us back to the desert.

In Arizona, things have not gone so swimmingly recently.

The team's goaltending has been abysmal; the Coyotes rank 28th in goals allowed per game, 27th on the penalty kill and 27th in goals scored per game.

"I do think Arizona is in a world of hurt now and moving forward," one NHL scout told ESPN.com. "It will take a few good years of drafting and UFAs [if possible] to 'retool.'"

The Coyotes are close enough to the bottom of the standings to be legitimate players in the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel sweepstakes.

But here's what people often overlook: As good as McDavid promises to be -- and there has been nary a hiccup in terms of the unwavering praise and expectations for the young man -- and as good as Eichel promises to be, those players cannot be viewed in a vacuum.

The view should be: How would those players fit in with whatever pieces already exist in whatever city is lucky enough -- or bad enough -- to nab them in June?

Whether the Coyotes end up with Eichel, McDavid or Noah Hannifin (the expected third-overall pick), those building blocks start with Domi.

"I think Don Maloney deserves a lot of credit," former GM Craig Button told ESPN.com, for not sticking Domi in the Arizona roster last fall and letting the chips fall.

Yes, Domi is going to be a big part of the team's future.

"But that future doesn't have to begin today. I think that's significant," Button said.

The former scout, who's now a national broadcast analyst, has been watching Domi's evolution since he was 15.

There are so many elements of maturity that come into play with young players who are asked to become impact players at the NHL level. You might have the skill to score, which is why you were a top pick, but if you don't have success right away, it's easy to lose confidence in those abilities.

In London, Domi is playing for one of the grittiest players in NHL history in Dale Hunter, who also understands the mechanics of leadership and maturity.

"I think that by him going back to junior and him being a real prominent player, being a leader, I think that gets them a more mature player when he gets to Arizona to play," Button said. "That's how it's supposed to work."

Button has seen Domi go from being a pass-first type of player -- perhaps because he didn't want to be criticized for being selfish -- to a well-balanced, dynamic scoring presence.

"Now you become a prolifically dangerous player passing or shooting," Button said.

Just this week, Maloney said he would entertain the possibility of having Domi return for a few games at the end of the regular season if his junior team's season ends in time.

Add in players such as Christian Dvorak, Tobias Rieder, Michael Stone, Connor Murphy and Lucas Lessio, and you can understand why folks in Arizona are weighing the disappointments of the past couple of seasons against a future that perhaps has a chance to get a lot less bleak in a short period of time.

It's hard not to salivate if you're a fan of the beleaguered Coyotes when imagining Domi and McDavid or Eichel suiting up for years to come.

It is like seeing a rail-thin Patrick Kane and boyish Jonathan Toews on the eve of their first training camp with the Chicago Blackhawks. Imagine what those two have meant to that franchise, to its on-ice success, its identity, its place in the community. Try to quantify it.

The same has been true with the Pittsburgh Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That's the kind of impact that is possible for the Coyotes.

It's a game-changer. Simple as that.

One pro scout told ESPN.com that as long as Domi is insulated with other good players, he has a chance to become a difference-making player.

"I don't know Max real well, but ... he'll be a piece, is what I'm saying," the scout said. "I have a lot of respect for Tippett. Great coach but has very little to work with currently."

In some ways, it's simple math: Add more elite players and your chances of success go up. Simple.

"You add difference-makers [such as Eichel or McDavid] with really high-end other prospects and one plus one equals three," Button said. "The potential becomes exponentially greater.

"Teams that win have difference-makers. Teams that win have always had difference-makers."

And let's be honest, difference-makers are the purview of those teams who draft at the very top of the draft, not those teams that draft in the latter half of the first round. At least in theory.

That's why these coming weeks are so important for the Coyotes.

Whether you call it a retool, a burn down or, as LeBlanc insisted, "maybe a reset and I don't even know if I'd go that far," it seems pretty clear the team must follow the path of building around their prospects.

The Coyotes already have moved netminder Devan Dubnyk to the Minnesota Wild, and teams are calling about center Antoine Vermette. Zbynek Michalek likely will be bound for a new home before the trade deadline.

Keith Yandle will hear his name come up again, although if the smooth-skating defenseman is dealt it would likely be in the offseason when the potential return would be greater.

"I think that's where they have to go," Button said. "They're not going to make the playoffs, right? Again, you'd better realize where you are."

The truth of the matter is, exactly where the Coyotes are won't fully be known until the balls drop at April's draft lottery.

But as for getting there, LeBlanc echoed what you'd expect an NHL team executive to say: They aren't happy with losing, no one comes to work expecting to lose, and captain Shane Doan, Tippett and the rest of the Coyotes don't behave that way.

Still, the team stands to earn significant rewards regardless of how that draft order turns out.

"Everybody's focused on this year's draft; and I understand because there's some pretty special talent," LeBlanc said. "But I look at our prospects that are already in the system, [along with emerging NHL stars Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Mikkel Boedker] and it's very, very exciting."

Just how much more exciting? The Coyotes are waiting for that to be revealed in about two and a half months.