Although the Avalanche had a pretty good season and managed to challenge for a playoff spot until the bitter end, there’s some concern in Colorado about former third overall pick Matt Duchene. After a 27-goal, 67-point sophomore effort, Duchene struggled mightily for the Avs this season, managing just 14-goals and 28-points in 58 games.
His struggles were so pronounced, Duchene found himself on Colorado’s third line playing 11 minutes a night and beset by rumors that he and coach Joe Sacco don’t get along by the end of the year. Naturally, with Sacco recently being extended by the organization, there’s a sense the team might move the 21-year old center as a result.
Looking at Duchene’s season is interesting. Not only because he represents a good trade target if the Avs are indeed looking to move him, but also because it relates to the struggles of the Flames own young center, Mikael Backlund.
Duchene made the NHL as a teenager the October after he was drafted and promptly put up a noteworthy 55-point rookie campaign. The next year, he led the team in scoring, which is why his recent fall from grace is so stark and unexpected. It’s a good reminder that development in the league doesn’t necessarily follow a smooth path and, also, that bad luck can afflict just about anyone.
In 2010-11, his 67-point effort, Duchene scored 2.39 even strength points per 60 minutes of ice. That’s an above average rate and was the best amongst Avs regular skaters. He was propelled by an on-ice shootinge percentage of 10.49%, which is about 2.5% above the league average and was the second best on-ice SH% on the Avs. His relative corsi rate was +3.6/60.
This year, Duchene’s relative possession results were the same in similar circumstances – +3.9/60. The big difference was in the percentages and ice time. Unfortunately, the bounces went the other way for the youngster and he ended up with an on-ice SH% of just 5.79 (the lowest of any regular skater on the team) and his scoring rate fell a full point per hour as a result (1.33/60).
Sacco reacted as any rational coach would – he buried Duchene in favor of superior options like Landeskog, O’Reilly and Stastny. If the team can’t seem to score when a certain player is on the ice, eventually the coach looks to other guys. With so many other quality centers are the ready, Duchene’s ES ice time fell from 16:01 in 2010-11 to just 13:50 this past season. Luckily for kid, he continued to get PP ice time (making a bit of a lie out of the "Sacco doesn’t like him" rumor) which is where he garnered 9 of his 28 points.
The Backlund Parralells
Duchene’s season echoes Backlund’s in terms of bad luck – both guys had one of the lowest SH% numbers amongst forwards in the league. A lot of people who don’t follow or subscribe to advanced stats analysis have trouble wrapping their head around the theory that percentages are more a function of randomness rather than skill. The Duchene example, however, shows how wildly on-ice SH% can vary around the mean in the space of two seasons for a player – he went from a team best to a team worst number, even though intuitively he should have been better with more experience under his belt this year. This obviously has implications with how Backlund should be perceived going forward, but we’ve covered this area before…
The two players differ in various ways of course. Backlund’s ice time actually increased this year to 13 minutes and change, mostly due to all the injuries and a lack of options for the Flames. In addition, Backlund was actually better in terms of possession than Duchene despite playing in much tougher circumstances, which probably partially explains why Sutter was willing to promote Backlund despite his lack of scoring. Duchene continues to see middling competition and start way more often in the offensive zone and therefore remains a fairly average possession player. That said, most kids are just okay (or worse) at moving the puck north. It’s entirely possible Duchene will improve in this regard going forward.
The Qualitative Stuff
There’s a lot to like about Duchene’s game. He is very quick and smooth on his skates and can make slower defenders look foolish. He can weave in and out of traffic and is very creative with the puck. His package of offensive skills is the reason he was drafted so high in 2009. I’ve personally been a Duchene fan since I first saw him play in the league and think he has the potential to be an offensive difference maker.
Viable Trade Target?
Duchene is mediocre possession-wise, but he’s still very young, has a high-end ceiling and his poor counting numbers this year were mostly due to rotten luck. That makes him a really good trade target.
Unfortunately for the Flames, it’s unlikely the Avs will be eager to deal a former top-5 pick at this point, especially to a divisional rival who has little to offer in return. If Colorado decides to put Duchene on the auction block, Jay Feaster should certainly inquire, but I doubt he’d even get his foot in the door.