If the Nashville Predators were going to build on their surprising second half success from the 2020-21 regular season they were going to need two things to happen.
The obvious one was another big year from starting goalie Jusse Saros. Consider that box checked, as Saros is again one of the best goalies in the league.
They were also going to need some of their big-money players to play better than they had in recent seasons, specifically as it relates to Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen. That box is also checked, and in the case of Duchene, emphatically so.
Duchene has been one of the bigger surprises in the NHL this season with the way he has bounced back offensively and starting to produce the way Nashville hoped he would when they gave him a massive seven-year, $56 million contract in free agency prior to the 2019-20 season.
It was the latest in a long line of blockbuster additions that were supposed to help push Nashville over the top in the Western Conference only to ultimately disappoint. Kyle Turris was not that guy. Johansen has been hit and miss. And Duchene’s first two years were woefully underwhelming, resulting in just 19 goals and 55 total points in 104 games. He was one of the players (along with Johansen) that was left available to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, while it is not a stretch to believe that if Nashville could have found a taker for him they would have dumped that contract.
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In the end Seattle passed, Duchene remained in Nashville, and the Predators are being rewarded with one of the best seasons of his career.
As of Monday he already has 31 goals and 59 total points in 55 games, already surpassing his total offensive production from the previous two seasons combined. He is currently on track to do something no Predators player has ever done in franchise history — score 40 goals in a single season.
It is not empty offensive production, either. He has been one of their best possession and scoring chance drivers during 5-on-5 play, while his individual production has been second to only Filip Forsberg on a per 60 minute basis. He has been a legitimate top-line player at 5-on-5 this season and one of the most efficient power play players in the league. The latter has been a key development as the Predators have gone from one of the worst power play teams in the league (almost historically bad) to one of the best in the league this season.
The question for Nashville is whether or not this is what they can expect from Duchene going forward, or if this is just a random flash in the pan for a declining player.
But maybe we should have seen a bounce back coming for him this season. Even though his offensive production plummeted in his first two years, his underlying numbers were still extremely strong and among the best on the team. Few players on the roster (and especially forwards) did more to drive possession, expected goals, and chances than he did, while his ability to generate shots on goal had not really declined.
What did decline was his finishing ability, at least based on percentages, as his all situations shooting percentage dropped all the way down to 9.6 and 8.2 percent respectively. Prior to the 2019-20 season he was consistently in the 12 to 18 percent range throughout his career in every stop, with an overall number of 13 percent. If he shoots at that level over the prior two years he adds another 10 goals to his total. If he shoots as high as 15 to 18 percent, which he had done multiple times in his career, it could have been another 14 to 18 goals. Things would have looked a lot different for him then.
This season all of the positive underlying numbers are still there, while the finishing numbers have increased significantly. While it is unlikely he continues to finish 19 percent of his shots, it is still more in line to the rest of his career than what he had done his first two years in Nashville. If nothing else, the fact the process behind his numbers is still strong is almost as encouraging as the results. He is playing well and getting rewarded for it. As are the Predators.
Combined with Saros’ continued excellence, another big year from Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg, and a bounce back from Ryan Johansen and the Predators suddenly have the fifth best points percentage in the Western Conference and look like a very formidable playoff team.