Matt Duchene has played his entire seven year career in an Avalanche sweater. He's tenth in franchise games played, sixth - almost fifth - in scoring, and just became the first Avs player in a decade to crack the 30 goal mark. However, after listening to Patrick Roy's comments after the Blues loss on Sunday, after taking the time to look at the issue from all sides, I've come to one conclusion:
I think the Avs are still considering trading Matt Duchene.
No, I don't have an inside source. It's merely a suspicion, heightened by the rumors that flew around him earlier this year. However, after listening to plenty of Roy interviews, that one stood out as an exception. He very rarely calls out players, and even after talking more about accountability during his previous presser against Washington, to hear him single out Duchene then ominously leave him out of the leadership discussion raised some red flags.
There is no doubt Patrick Roy loves to win. He's always loved it. It fuels him. He's the type of guy that when he played, he could toss a team on his back and drag them to the Stanley Cup. He did just that as a rookie in 1986 with the Canadiens. When he came to Colorado, he played with Joe Sakic, with Peter Forsberg, with Ray Bourque and Rob Blake. He was surrounded by others like him, others with the natural ability to be a difference maker in a game and who had a strong enough supporting cast to make it count.
Now, he's not. He has Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Semyon Varlamov.
That's not to say that they aren't good players - they are. And some of them are still fairly young and growing their game. But Duchene and Barrie are at or near 25. Johnson and Varlamov are at or near 28. Heck, even Landeskog is entering the traditional NHL forward prime of 23. If you're expecting them to magically just get better, to become Hall of Fame level players who can just will a club to glory, you're going to be disappointed. That's not who they are.
Nor have they been put in a situation to find that success. Duchene's entire tenure here has been marked by sub-par teams and sub-par linemates. For a few years, he had O'Reilly, but by and large, he's been stuck with guys like the end-of-career ghosts of Iginla, Tanguay, Hejduk. At even strength, he's played with Landeskog only 20 more minutes than with Brandon Yip, and many of those Landeskog minutes came just this season. He's tried to do it all by himself, to be that guy, and he's shut down because of the stress and lack of help.
Until this year. This year, after a horrid October from the entire team, he finally was paired with decent linemates in Landeskog and MacKinnon. As a result, he put up 11 goals in the month of November, essentially resurrecting the Avs from the Western Conference basement and back to a semblance of a playoff hope.
And now you're going to call him out for lack of scoring big goals in the same breath as criticizing his celebration of the 30th tally this season?
To be fair, Roy isn't completely wrong either. For someone so driven to win, seeing that the playoffs are this close then watching them slip away with unacceptable blowout losses this late in the season has to be eating him up. Frustrated people say things they don't mean, do things they could come to regret. Roy's calmed down a ton since his playing days, but that fiery temper isn't gone completely.
After the Capitals loss, he talked a lot about accountability from the core. The best players need to be the best players night in, night out. Turnovers killed the Avs that game, many from the top guys who should know better. He asked if it was talent, options, or concentration holding back the team.
The truth is that it's all three. There is an encyclopedia's worth on what's wrong with this roster's construction, deployment, and execution, so there's plenty of blame to go around. If this club wants to take the next step, everyone - and I do mean EVERYONE - needs to take it upon themselves to get better.
With that in mind, I appreciate Roy's step towards creating player accountability. Years ago I read an article on the Edmonton Oiler's losing culture. It has since disappeared into the ether of the internet, but essentially, it talked about how Edmonton's young core celebrated individual benchmarks and earned bonuses in terrible team losses. They were so accustomed to losing that cheering for individual accomplishments was all they had left. So when the team cheered for Duchene's 30th, it drew some nasty parallels.
Yes, it's a big goal for him as an individual. Yes, thirty goals in the modern-day NHL is a big accomplishment, one to be proud of. But when that comes across as overshadowing the reality of where the team as a whole is at, is that really the culture the Avs want to be creating?
I understand why Roy called him out. But what I don't understand is why he decided to pick that fight. If you're going to pick on the core, pick on Landeskog's delay of game penalty that created STL's first goal. Or Barrie's recent lack of production. Or the mistakes made by Johnson around his net and in the neutral zone. Pick on Varlamov's poor start to the year that put us in this catch-up position in the first place. All have had redeeming qualities this season as well, but when your first foray into "player accountability" is singling out this year's MVP for only laying one golden egg instead of two, is that really the way to start?
Matt Duchene is not above criticism, nor was his celebration. But if you're going to talk about what was broken this year - or what's broken moving forward - there's a heck of a lot of names above his on the list.
However, I do agree with Roy that this is a team that doesn't know how to win, doesn't know how to bounce back when things go poorly. It's been a hallmark of the Avs since 2010. Maybe it is a leadership issue from the core, a lack of pushing this team forward from Duchene, Barrie, MacKinnon, and Varlamov (the four core members not mentioned by Roy). Can he teach them how to win, how to be leaders? Maybe, maybe not. But I will say this:
If Sakic and Roy are not comfortable with the core as it stands - if they don't believe this core is capable of lifting this team to that next level - they need to trade someone.
And they need to do it this summer.
They've preached patience, but is accepting two seasons without playoffs without a major shake up the way to establish a "winning culture"? Given their expectations, the coach would usually be shown the door. However, given Roy's front office position and ties with Sakic, I highly doubt he's going anywhere for at minimum another year or two.
That means another scapegoat might very well be offered. And who has higher trade value on this team right now than Matt Duchene?
Only one problem - if you pull that trigger, you better be right. Even if he's not a leader in the locker room, 25-year-old 30-goal scorers do not grown on trees. There are currently seven players that age or younger in that company, and I doubt St. Louis (Tarasenko), Dallas (Seguin), Nashville (Forsberg), Calgary (Gaudreau), Tampa Bay (Kucherov), or Columbus (Jenner) are in a huge hurry to get rid of theirs.
To make matters worse, the Avs don't have any forward depth to spare. If you look at who gets the most minutes at 5 on 5 (min 20 GP), in '13-14, the top six forwards generated 100 ES goals, 5th in the league. Then they lost Stastny. Last year, they generated 80 ES goals, good for 13th. Then they lost O'Reilly. Even though it's been a while since I pulled the numbers, after game 73, this year's group was on pace for 64 even strength goals, which was 26th in the league. Of the 57 they had scored to that time, Duchene had 20.
Maybe he's not a leader in the room, but he's certainly been one on the scoreboard. But maybe this team will be fine without him. Maybe Mikko Rantanen will come up and have a great showing as a rookie next year, and maybe the Avs will land Alex Radulov and boost their scoring that way. But that's still a of a lot of maybes when you have an elite scorer sitting on the roster in front of you.
And this isn't an O'Reilly or Stastny situation. Duchene has already signed here long term. Heck, he even took a cap-friendly discount to stick with this team. Yes, the roster needs defensive help, and yes, Duchene is a good trade chip to get it, but robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't get you any closer to heaven. And trading any of the Avs core players, particularly Duchene, has tremendous potential to either create or drastically widen areas of need.
For the Avalanche fanbase, this is year seven of a "five-year" rebuild. If Sakic and Roy are ready to hit the reset button again and restructure the core, that's their right. Maybe it's what needs to be done. Beyond MacKinnon, this core was assembled by the previous administration, and it's certainly not without its faults.
Maybe a more authoritarian Roy will change things. Up to this point, Duchene for one has never thrived in this environment, but possibly hearing it from someone he grew up idolizing will help. It's also possible the rest of the core needs a similar kick in the rear to discover how to take it to the next level.
And maybe changing an assistant coach is the right move, or bringing up and expanding the roles for Rantanen, Bigras, and Zadorov will turn things around. Or maybe a free agent can come in and help improve the defensive or top six forward depth.
However, fan frustration is definitely very high, and Colorado doesn't have a lack of things to do in the winter. Results are important, and while turning a team around takes time, dragging it out longer than necessary won't help.
This is a pivotal summer for the Avs. Both action and inaction could have a drastic impact on what the core looks like October 1st. If the front office doesn't have faith in the group they have now - if they feel someone like Duchene isn't in their long term plans and can't become the leader they need - then now is the time to make the trade.
The Avs have gone two seasons without the playoffs, and a decade without a series win. If they have to break the roster again before it can heal, at this point, what's a few more years?
But they better be right.
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