They always had a great foundation with that duo at the top of the roster (and for the longest time had them signed for bargain prices) and over the past couple of years have found the right complementary pieces to give them a chance to seriously compete.
It was pretty obvious that Verhaeghe just needed an opportunity after being buried in the Tampa Bay organization that was swimming with talent. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes players just fall through the cracks because they never get a chance in a deeper organization.
Duclair, though, represents a lot of missed opportunities by quite a few teams around the league. He is now in his second year with the Panthers, and after scoring two goals in a 9-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night is well on his way to another quietly productive season. And it seems like he has finally found a home and steady role with a team that appreciates his skill. Or wanted to give him a chance.
He spent the first six years of his career bouncing around between five different teams.
A quick rundown of his journey before this season.
• After being drafted by the New York Rangers in the second-round, he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes as part of the Keith Yandle trade. Not really an example of the Rangers giving up on him, just the price it took to acquire a top trade deadline target.
• He spent two-and-a-half years with the Coyotes before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. That came after Duclair had become frustrated with his role in Arizona and requested a trade. Duclair had been a healthy scratch in several games and had his work ethic and commitment questioned on more than one occasion by former coaches Rick Tocchett and Dave Tippett. Then-general manager John Chayka had this to say at the time of the trade:
“This has gone back for a few years now where the team wasn’t particularly happy with the player and the player wasn’t particularly happy with the team. It was probably best to change the scenery for both sides. There’s a lot of things that go into a trade, some of them are readily apparent. You see Anthony play, his speed and skill is obvious to everyone. There’s some things that I think can stay behind closed doors.”
• After finishing out the 2017-18 season with the Blackhawks he was not given a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, allowing him to test the unrestricted free agent market. He signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
• Things did not really go much better in Columbus, where he was consistently in the crosshairs for criticism from John Tortorella. At one point Tortorella said of Duclair “I don’t think he knows how to play,” and “he’s off the rails,” among other criticisms. The Blue Jackets eventually traded him to Ottawa in the deal that sent Ryan Dzingel to Columbus at the 2019 trade deadline.
• In his season-and-a-half with the Senators, Duclair scored 31 goals in 87 games, earned an All-Star game appearance, and looked to be thriving with a real opportunity to play. And then the Senators did not offer him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, allowing him to again test the open market. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion seemed to express frustration with the negotiations as Duclair represented himself without an agent. An offer was made, but they could not come to terms. A stunning development given his production, That took Duclair to Florida on a one-year, $1.7 million deal.
That brings us to where we are now. Duclair impressed the Panthers so much in his first season that they committed to him with a three-year, $9 million contract this offseason and is averaging close to a point-per-game this season. In total, he has already scored 22 goals in his first 63 games with the Panthers and has been one of their most productive players.
The thing of it is, he is not really doing anything that he has not done with every other team he played for. The Panthers are just letting him be the player he is.
If you look at Duclair’s career prior to this season he has pretty consistently been a 20-25 goal scorer, or scored at that exact pace over 82 games. The problem has always been teams or coaches wanting more, or expecting more, or trying to change him into something that he is not. It is something that happens too often with talented players whose primary skill is offense. These players get labeled as “one dimensional” or have their work ethic questioned or are tossed aside or buried on the depth chart because they do not fit a certain mold. All while players whose only skill is defending or blocking shots or checking with limited offensive upside get lauded with praise or increased roles. Nobody ever calls that player one dimensional.
Not everybody has to be Jonathan Toews or Patrice Bergeron, or play that like them. Sometimes you just need somebody on the wing that can fly up the ice and put the puck in the net. Maybe that player has some flaws away from the puck, maybe that player is not somebody you build your entire franchise around. But there is still value in it, and the Panthers are benefitting from it with Duclair. While a lot of teams that had him in their presence and still desperately need offense (looking at you Chicago, Columbus, and Ottawa) were willing to just let him go.