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Rumor/Analysis: Matt Duchene interested in signing in Nashville

Earlier this week, Elliotte Friedman mentioned on his 31 Thoughts podcast that the much-coveted Matt Duchene would be interested in signing with the Nashville Predators:

[W]hen I look at Duchene, I think [Nashville and Montreal] are the two. He’s always wanted to play for Nashville, we all know that. […] Until Nashville’s out of the picture, I always assume they’re very much in the picture when it comes to him.

(Transcript, and some quick cap analysis, courtesy of our former colleague Alex Daugherty.)

We have some thoughts coming up later this morning on how David Poile could make the math work for a big free agent signing (whether Duchene or, in theory, someone else), so stay tuned for those.

In the meantime, considering that a semi-reputable source has announced that the Predators are interested in signing a productive center in free agency (shocker), and a very reputable one has now confirmed everyone’s long-held suspicions that country music fan/Nashville rental property owner Duchene would be interested in going from a tourist to a resident, let’s take a quick look at Duchene.

Duchene has three real strengths to his game, all of which could definitely be of use to the Nashville Predators.

  1. He doesn’t take penalties, which, for a team struggling with discipline, is always a plus to add down the middle (lookin’ at you, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris). He does draw them—a lot more often than he takes them though not even close to the rate that Filip Forsberg or Rocco Grimaldi draw penalties—and, with the Preds’ recent hire of Dan Lambert to fix the power play, that might even be helpful instead of a disadvantage if they sign Duchene.
  2. He’s among the best faceoff-takers in the league, and he’s a left-handed shot. This would mean no more Nick Bonino on the power play. I’m iffy about the reliability of faceoffs as a general measure of team success (after all, the year Duchene won 63% of his was the year his Avalanche finished the season with 48 standings points), but I’ll ignore a lot of analytics research for the thought of no more Nick Bonino on the power play.
  3. I saved the best for last: Duchene is one of the best players in the league at turning shots into goals. Scoring goals is, of course, the objective of a hockey game for everyone except the goalie, and being very good at that is, well, very good.

I’ll spare you the suspense: the Predators don’t already have any other top-twenty shooting talents in their back pocket.

The thing is, especially as most teams move towards considering analytics, it’s good for Duchene that he does have that shooting talent, because that’s about all he does have going for him. He is in every other respect staggeringly forgettable.

Dr. McCurdy’s player isolates separate a player’s on-ice performance from that of his teammates, his competition, and even his deployment, so “but Duchene was playing for the Ottawa Senators” doesn’t quite explain the staggering mediocrity of this.

He doesn’t really move the needle in the offensive or the defensive zone, or on the power play, at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a top-six center with so many “Average”s in his isolate. His wingers have been capable of scoring in Ottawa, which is a weird sentence to find myself typing in 2019, but Ryan Dzingel has an excellent shot (and a better transition game than Duchene does) himself.

Duchene also doesn’t play on the penalty kill at all, though he’s only a defensive liability at even strength by the smallest possible measurement (better than Johansen or Turris, worse than Colton Sissons or Calle Jarnkrok, and about the same as Bonino). There’s no reason why he couldn’t be given a try there if the Preds, say, wanted to clear $4.1M in the form of Bonino’s cap hit in order to sign fellow lefty Duchene.

Basically, if the Preds choose to try to sign Duchene, and Duchene chooses to sign in Nashville, what we’ll be getting is a pure goalscorer. We won’t be able to look to Duchene to bring the best out of Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund, or Eeli Tolvanen, or whoever he’s asked to play with, but he will make Pekka Rinne’s life a little easier, and he has a decent chance of making an opponent goalie look stupid.

And, ultimately, that is the point of the game.

Thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy, both for maintaining hockeyviz.com (which I used for more than just the one graph) and for taking the time to explain how strangely shooting talent is distributed in the NHL, to Corey Sznajder for his work tracking games and CJ Turtoro for visualizing that work (which I referenced as background), and to Andi Duroux and a few other Avalanche folk for reminding me about the faceoffs. Salary cap information from capfriendly.com.

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