Matt Duchene’s monster season helping drive Predators’ playoff push

Matt Duchene Nashville Predators
John Russell, Getty Images

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.

[NHL Power Rankings: Avalanche stay in first; Capitals, Predators improve]

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.

[Related: NHL Trade Deadline Primer: Filip Forsberg trade would not be easy]

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.

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    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.