Not that long ago, the story of Matt Duchene felt like a farce. If his tale was anything like the recent spate of strange classic literature mashups, he’d star alongside Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.
As much sympathy as I’ve had for Duchene, it was pretty difficult to ignore the near-gallows-humor of his situation.
Of course, the dark comedy didn’t stop once Duchene was traded from the Avalanche to the Senators. Thanks in part to a quantum leap by Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado erupted after the trade, while the Senators imploded in 2017-18. Things only got worse from there, as drama and turmoil surrounded the organization, with issues going even deeper than trading away stars in Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.
Considering all of the headaches (and, as Duchene would say it, kicks below the belt), it seemed like 2018-19 would only bring about more uncomfortable chuckles.
And, no doubt, there have been. We’re talking about the Ottawa Senators here.
Most glaringly, Duchene himself was a matinee star of the most embarrassing feature film of the season for Ottawa, as he was one of the players bashing assistant Martin Raymond while unknowingly on an Uber driver’s camera.
There are also the continued misadventures of owner Eugene Melnyk, who doubles as hockey’s Don Quixote.
All of those swirling controversies shouldn’t distract from this fact: Duchene is absolutely on fire. As great as Patrik Laine has been lately, you could make an argument that Duchene is the hottest player in the NHL right now. At minimum, opponents aren’t getting many chances to trash talk him, because they’re too busy trying to catch their breath after failing to keep up with the speedy center.
So far in 2018-19, Duchene has 12 goals and 33 points in 26 games. Those 33 points tie him with Brayden Point for sixth overall in the NHL. Duchene leads dangerous forwards such as Blake Wheeler, Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, and Jack Eichel.
Duchene might be most satisfied to realize that he’s been a little ahead of Nathan MacKinnon lately. Since Nov. 6, Duchene’s generated 21 points, tying him with Nikita Kucherov for the league lead (and edging MacKinnon by one point).
Nitpickers will point to his 19.7 shooting percentage, yet if any NHL player deserves some bounces, it’s Duchene.
Delightfully, plenty of Duchene’s points have come in exhilarating fashion. I’ve seen Duchene bat this rebound out of mid-air at least 10 times, and I don’t expect it to get old even if I see it in perpetuity:
Raise your hand if that goal leaves you belly-laughing. This stuff is right up there – maybe even better than – some of Sidney Crosby‘s “MLB audition” goals.
As you’d expect from a hockey player, Duchene mostly gave the “Aw shucks” treatment after that goal, although he did provide Sportsnet with some interesting insight. He explained that he might have been a little angry that his initial shot attempt was blocked, possibly driving him to get another mustard on the swipe that actually netted a goal.
Maybe that goal captures the spirit of what Duchene is doing right now.
He very well might be frustrated with his situation. Sure, the Senators have been far more entertaining than expected, with high-scoring games making it easier to accept certain aspects of their struggles. (Note: Senators fans probably still aren’t very happy with Melnyk.) It must be exasperating for Duchene to get traded into another losing scenario.
Yet, Duchene is responding by combining skill and will to do the best he can to put his team in a position to win.
A lot was made about Kyle Turris enjoying a strong start in Nashville, while Duchene’s stay with Ottawa opened with a thud.
Turris is perfectly fine (when healthy), but that punchline is about as relevant as Y2K jokes at this point. Despite that tough start, Duchene generated 49 points in 68 games with Ottawa last season, translating to a .72 points-per-game average, virtually matching his run in Colorado (.73 ppg). Of course, he slammed that door shut with even greater velocity by roaring out of the gate this season.
Prepare for turbulence
There could still be some stormy days ahead for Duchene, mind you.
That 19.7 shooting percentage isn’t likely to last all season. The grind of an 82-game campaign might change reactions from “Hey, these Senators aren’t half-bad” to “These Senators need to be more than half-good.”
The 27-year-old also faces some uncertainty.
Duchene’s $6M cap hit will expire after the 2018-19 season, opening the door for free agency. While the Senators might not want to part ways with another key player after trading Karlsson and Hoffman (not to mention questions surrounding Mark Stone), this team’s reality as a rebuilding team might prompt yet another Duchene trade.
In recent history, drastic change of locales have often been tough on players, particularly ones who play big roles. There’s no guarantee that a third team would be a charm for Duchene, if a trade were to happen.
Whatever happens down the line, Duchene’s been fantastic this season, and must feel liberated to just get out on the ice. It hasn’t just been about numbers, either, as he’s frequently been a blast to watch.
Really, Duchene getting the last laugh is something we can all smile about.