2019-20 Predators Player Report Cards: Matt Duchene
David Poile finally landed his white whale, with less harpooning—so how did it go?
Author’s note: I’m going to be honest with you all for a moment: this took way too long to do. I was the one who setup the sheet and schedule for report cards, and I’m way past that. But in the case of grading the season of the organization’s most sought-after player for many years, I wasn’t satisfied with either of the two previous drafts I had written. Grading Matt Duchene and breaking down his season needed more, so here’s the more I came up with. Usually, I structure these with the positives, the negatives, best and worst games, and so on. This time, I’m doing it a bit different.
The Report Cards
This season was a disappointment, right? I mean, look at the box score
You all should know me well enough by now to know that just spitting out basic stats doesn’t describe a player’s game accurately, but there is some merit to it, and doing a proper evaluation means using all the tools in the box to give a complete picture. So let’s take a look.
Duchene has played in the majority of his teams’ games over his career, and looking at season totals can give us some value. Duchene had his lowest goal total in his decade-long career, with his 14 in 2011-12 coming in eight fewer games than the 66 he played in the regular season this year. His point total (42) is also near the bottom of the list, with only two seasons of his 11-year career below the mark he set this year. Ranking these all-situations statistics by totals has its flaws, though, so let’s look on a per-60-minutes basis:
- Goals/60: 0.70 (Rank: 11th)
- Points/60: 2.26 (Rank: 8th)
- Shots For/60: 7.32 (Rank: 10th)
- Shooting Percentage: 9.56% (Rank: 11th)/
It’s not much better. It’s not a great look for the player I described a year ago as a “shoot-first player who excels at scoring goals”. The Nashville Predators gave Duchene a very big contract and played him in the top six, so you’d expect better from a guy they chased after for so long.
So why did I include shots and shooting percentage above? Good question!
Why did you include shots and shooting percentage, Bryan?
Matt Duchene’s role upon arriving in Nashville changed—this shouldn’t be a surprise, as we’ve seen it with so many forward acquisitions in the past. No longer was he the primary trigger-man on offense. Then-head coach Peter Laviolette seemingly tasked Duchene with two important goals: become a two-way center who is not a liability on defense, and carry the puck into the offensive zone in order to set up the offense. However, that new focus for Duchene came at the price of not being the shooter he’s been his entire career.
Under Peter Laviolette, Duchene had a goals per 60 rate of 0.79, and averaged 7.9 shots on goal per 60 minutes—surprisingly, a rate that would stand third overall in his career. His shooting percentage during that time was about 10% as well.
Contrary to what I initially thought, most of his metrics dropped significantly during the time coach John Hynes was at the helm. 0.56 goals/60, 1.81 points/60, 6.4 shots/60 and a shooting percentage of 8.7% are all significantly lower than his performance at the start of the season.
The difference between Duchene’s performance playing under both of Nashville’s coaches last season is important, but we should circle back to the bigger picture and look at his entire career:
Matt Duchene career statistics per 60 minutes, 5 on 5
|Player||Season||Team||GP||TOI||Goals/60||Points/60||Shots/60||Expected Goals/60||Shooting %||Shot Quality||Giveaways/60||Takeaways/60||Hits For/60||Hits Against/60||Penalties Taken (2) per 60||Penalties Drawn (2) per 60|
While we’re splitting hairs and trying to determine who he played better for last season, it’s painfully obvious that no matter how you slice it, his offensive metrics were down this season. His 8.7% shooting percentage at 5 on 5 is good for only ninth-best in his career. However, there’s one statistic that strikes me just as much as his shot metrics: his shot quality.
Shot quality is also known by the more technical name “expected Fenwick shooting percentage” by Evolving-Hockey.com. It is simply the number of expected goals (a measure of how good the shots he took were) divided by the number of unblocked shot attempts. This value is a great way to look at his overall shot quality—on average, was he taking good or bad shots, regardless of shot volume.
At 5 on 5 last season, Duchene had a shot quality of 7.22 xG/unblocked shot—good for 4th best in his career. Only 2018-19 (9.07), 2013-14 (7.76) and 2016-17 (7.44) were better in terms of shot quality, and his career isolates back those numbers up as well.
So while Duchene was taking significantly fewer shots this season, and the shots he did take were higher-quality, why wouldn’t his production stay even with his career averages? It is a bit difficult to know for sure, but there are some hints. Six of his eleven seasons in the NHL saw Duchene with a 5 on 5 shooting percentage above 10%—including an absurd 16.8% with Ottawa and Columbus in the 2018-19 season. Shooting percentages like that are volatile; even in the cases where his shot quality was worse than last season, the increased volume might make up the difference.
Obviously, we still don’t have the entire picture, so let’s move along.
You mentioned that his role changed this season. So how did he do in that role?
Way back at the beginning, I said that it was likely that the coaching staff asked him to change his game a bit:
“...then-head coach Peter Laviolette seemingly tasked Duchene with two important goals: become a two-way center who is not a liability on defense, and carry the puck into the offensive zone in order to set up the offense.”
We know two things about evaluating defense in hockey using statistics:
- It’s incredibly difficult, but using advanced metrics can help
- Plus/minus is a trash statistic and belongs in the trash
Judging a player by how many goals were let in while they were on the ice is incredibly unhelpful—plus/minus has rules as to what situations count and which don’t, and those of you who have watched a hockey game in your life knows that the goaltender might let in an easy point shot, or save an incredibly-skilled rebound from the crease. The defending players have little to do with what the goaltender does and if they make the save. So instead, you can look at two things: what is the shot quality the opponents are getting, and is a player helping to suppress shot attempts from happening at all?
Those two numbers, xGA/60 (expected goals allowed/60) and CA/60 (shot attempts against/60) form the backbone of the RAPM (Regularized-Adjusted Plus Minus) metric from Evolving-Hockey.com. Instead of digging into the nitty-gritty of how it’s calculated, just know that higher bars in those two stats usually means better defensive performance—especially in xGA/60.
Just from a quick glance, you can see that Duchene improved in both defensive metrics last season compared to the previous two. Also, neither of those statistics takes into account how good or bad (mostly bad) goaltending was during that season. So I’d say mission accomplished on that point.
Carrying the Puck
Duchene excelled in several other games that were tracked:— Bryan Bastin (@BryanBastin) December 25, 2020
vs MIN: 11 entry attempts, 7 carries, 3 dump-ins, 1 failed
vs VAN: 8 attempts, 6 carries, 1 dump-in, 1 failed
vs CHI: 8 attempts, 7 carries, 1 dump-in
vs DET: 6 attempts, 4 carries, 1 dump-in, 1 failed
Outside of Roman Josi, nobody on the roster was more effective at moving the puck up the ice than Matt Duchene. As seen above, Duchene took over several games and was responsible for carrying the puck into the offensive zone to set up the offense, something that the team has struggled with at times.
Duchene excelled at getting the puck into the offensive zone, and more than any other forward was successful at carrying the puck himself, allowing his teammates to get set up. The team has long relied on Roman Josi to do this in the past, so having Duchene available to do the same task is advantageous—the Predators’ offense can still effectively enter the zone, even without the top pair being available. You can see in the video clips below that Duchene is incredibly effective at driving the offense, and his only failure was when the Detroit defense collapsed around him. But note that it took nearly four defenders to do so:
Of course, carrying the puck into the OZ by himself isn’t always the best option (see my previous example), but, once again, Duchene was highly adaptable and one of the team’s best players at leading his team into the zone.
Even though Duchene’s role evolved in Nashville into a puck-moving, two-way center, he was able to adapt quickly and fill a much-needed role to a team prone to over-relying (at times) on Roman Josi.
So Nashville took a scoring center and turned him into a puck-moving play creator? Why does that sound familiar?
You might be thinking to yourself, “Oh no, it’s Ryan Johansen all over again.” And for good reason! But there are some key differences:
- As you can see above, Duchene is a contributor to shot assists nearly at the rate Johansen is, but cannot quite reach the effectiveness at creating the high-danger passes that Johansen does.
- One thing Duchene does do less of, which is a good thing, is not settle for point-shot setups as often as his top-six counterpart. You can see that he sits at the same level for point-shot passes as his linemates Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund. When this line is on the ice, they are driving to the net often, and with a scoring threat like Forsberg, this line combination is a dangerous threat every time they enter the OZ./
The concern about acquired forwards not reaching past production is valid, however, and while this topic is best saved for another deep dive (soon!), it would still be best to acknowledge that it is a problem, and Matt Duchene wasn’t exempt from it.
Was the Laviolette line blender a problem? Who should Duchene be playing with?
As mentioned before, the line of Forsberg-Duchene-Granlund was extremely effective to begin the year, but was separated just six games in, mostly due to injuries. While playing Duchene with Calle Järnkrok and either Granlund or Viktor Arvidsson found some success, the other combinations Duchene was part of did not. Too often under Laviolette, we saw Duchene playing alongside Johansen or Turris, and while the former combination was effective at times, the Predators’ offense and defense sputtered with two natural centers on the line and without a scoring threat at the wings.
As most players do on any NHL team, Duchene thrived when given consistent linemates—especially those who were able to get open or drive the net after he entered the zone. While his defense was adequate most of the time, if Duchene was given effective linemates like Mikael Granlund or even Calle Järnkrok, the offense was able to generate opportunities.
One thing that we did see last season, however, was no matter who was on the ice with Duchene for Nashville, his teammates’ performances were better just by virtue of having Duchene playing with them:
You can see from the above that Duchene was effective at elevating the game of nearly all of his linemates, with very few exceptions (there’s not much anyone can do about playing with Jarred Tinordi sometimes).
Fine. So Duchene excelled in a lot of areas that don’t show up on the score sheet—but if he’s not scoring goals, was it really worth all that effort and money?
All right, all right—let’s get back to the question at hand: Was Matt Duchene’s Nashville debut season worth the huge contract (and shipping out P.K. Subban)? Let’s run down what we have learned so far:
- Matt Duchene’s scoring dropped significantly, especially when it came to scoring goals, doing so last season at a career-low rate.
- His stellar shooting-percentage from a season before dropped significantly—unless you’re Steven Stamkos, nobody can sustain a 16% shooting percentage.
- He did make up for the lack of shot volume by improving his average shot quality, something Predators fans should be happy to see.
- The Predators organization (most likely Peter Laviolette) asked Matt Duchene to fill a new role, with a focus on defense (which improved to a decent level) and being a puck-moving center who can set up his linemates (which he did, with flying colors).
- Due to the above changes, Duchene become a much more effective passer, doing so on a level similar to Ryan Johansen, but less focused on point-shot setups. Again, I will not complain about that one bit.
- Duchene excelled when playing with Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund. This line was one of the best in the NHL at the beginning of the season. Now that Granlund has re-signed with the team, I’d love to see this line get another chance.
- Duchene was able to find some success with players like Viktor Arvidsson and Calle Järnkrok, but struggled somewhat when inexplicably partnered with another true center such as Johansen or Turris.
- Still, Duchene was able to elevate the game of nearly all of his teammates by simply being on the ice, and a player that can make his teammates better is a valuable commodity./
It’s easy to look at that list and still be disappointed, and you’d have every right to feel that way. However, looking at an advanced metric such as GAR (goals above replacement), his dip in production last season was about on par with his earlier seasons prior to 2018-19. One of the driving factors was his ability to draw penalties, which he did very well.
Final Grade: B-
Assigning a letter grade, even after all this evaluation, was tough. You can’t ignore the serious dropoff in point/goal production—he was signed to be an all-star scoring threat, and his massive contract demands it. However, his all-around game evolved into something that made Duchene a more complete player. Even with his shot volume decreasing, the focus on creating higher-quality shots should result in more scoring, and while it’s absurd to think he can replicate his 16% percentage from two years ago, I think we should see an uptick in his goal totals this season.
The final question on Matt Duchene right now—and likely for the remainder of his contract—is “Was it worth it?” I think so.
He’s an excellent puck-moving center who is a dangerous passer like Ryan Johansen. Unlike Johansen, Duchene brings above-average defensive ability and looks for low-to-high passes and passes to the high-danger area often. If Matt Duchene is given high-quality forwards on his wings, such as Filip Forsberg or even Eeli Tolvanen, I expect him to find success heading into the next season.
Although some people working at our website were already tired of Duchene prior to this game, Matt Duchene announced his arrival in Nashville with a strong three-assist game against the Minnesota Wild. And while he had better individual efforts against Pittsburgh, Detroit and New Jersey, this game went a long way to ease the concerns of Predators fans who had waited the entire offseason to see Duchene in gold.
If you’re like me, the season (and the calendar year of 2020) turned after the awful performance put in by the team at the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. However, for Duchene, a game just two weeks earlier was much, much worse. Duchene had an on-ice goals-for percentage of zero as his line was outscored 3-0 in a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. This game is emblematic of another issue Duchene had last season—he’d be one of the best players on the ice for some games, then practically invisible in others.
How would you grade Matt Duchene during the 2019-20 season?