What is the deal with Matt Duchene?

Who or what is to blame for the Duchene disappointment in Smashville?

Matt Duchene walked into what he thought would be a terrific opportunity with the Nashville Predators and discovered that instead of a good old-fashioned family Christmas dinner, he was suddenly at the table with the Griswolds. It is difficult to meet high expectations when the cat is chewing an electrical cord, the burnt turkey deflates, and everyone else is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for a blessing. While it hasn’t been an easy start to his time in Nashville and fan patience may be running out, is Duchene a victim of circumstance or a bust?

On July 1, 2019 Predators General Manager David Poile announced a massive eight-year, $56-million deal for free agent center Matt Duchene. Among the things Poile said at the time:

  • “Our main objective this summer was to bolster our offense, and we’ve done that today.”
  • “I don’t know who out there other than [Artemi] Panarin or something could help our power play as much as Matt Duchene.”
  • “They [Duchene and his wife] met with our coaches and specifically our head coach Peter Laviolette for a long time to discuss where Matt fit into our system and where he would play.”
  • “Let’s call it like it is. If we don’t make the [P.K.] Subban trade and get rid of his money it’s going to be much more difficult to win the Duchene sweepstakes if you will.”
  • “There’s nothing like competition that should get the best out of everyone.”
  • “I think he creates a lot of things by himself.”/

With these words and that hefty price tag, immense expectations for Matt Duchene were set.

Just over a year and a half later, Predators fans seem divided on whether Duchene is a wasted signing or a talent wasted. When asked for a word or phrase that describes Matt Duchene on Twitter, the responses were varied and interesting.

What is it about Matt Duchene and his performance so far in Nashville that causes such an interesting and divided reaction? And how fair is the criticism of Duchene?

Matt Duchene was billed as a prolific playmaker, but he is struggling to score goals.

What those disappointed in Duchene express frustration with most often is his offensive production—or lack thereof. Duchene himself has used the term “snakebit” to refer to a dry spell this season when it appeared he couldn’t even buy a goal. The Predators as a team have struggled this season to produce, ranking in the bottom third of the league in goals scored. The player fans thought they were getting in Duchene hasn’t showed up big in regards to goals.

It can’t be denied that Duchene has struggled to find his shot in Nashville. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual phenomenon, as the organization has repeatedly brought in high-producing forwards only to see their individual performances decline in their time at Bridgestone.

Listening back on Poile’s words when announcing the Matt Duchene deal definitely set expectations for offensive output, but like several forwards before him (Kyle Turris, Ryan Hartman, etc.), Duchene has not played his best hockey in Nashville. One could debate whether these acquisitions were overhyped or whether there is a development or system integration piece missing to push forwards to growth in offensive production.

Duchene was touted as being an answer for the Predators’ struggling power play, but the power play still struggles.

In that July 1 press conference Poile was clearly using Artemi Panarin as a comparison specifically for special teams play. Panarin was coming off of an 87-point season and had been a 70+ point player since entering the league in 2015. That name equalled impressive offensive production, and without carefully listening to context, it reinforced the high bar for Duchene’s offensive production.

Poile was correct in the sense that Duchene would contribute on special teams. In the season prior to Duchene’s joining the Predators, Nashville ranked dead last in power play percentage at 12.94%. In the 2019-2020 season with Duchene, the Predators crawled their way up to 17.26% power play percentage (still below league average). Duchene can’t take credit alone for that slight statistical improvement, but in his first season in Nashville, Duchene was the second leading power-play goal scorer behind Filip Forsberg. (Coincidentally, Duchene and Panarin each scored six power-play goals in that  season.)

It has become increasingly obvious since Duchene’s signing in July 2019 that the struggles with the power play—and special teams in general—is less a personnel issue than a system and execution issue. Poile believed he was attacking a vulnerable aspect of the team’s game by hiring a player, when it appears far more likely that a change of system (or perhaps coaching) on special teams has likely been the only viable solution all along.

Matt Duchene came to the team expecting to play under a specific coach and in a specific system.

Duchene was invested in understanding not only his role on his potential new team but also how the head coach viewed the game. In his July 1 press conference, David Poile mentioned how much time Duchene and former Head Coach Peter Laviolette spent talking about the X’s and O’s prior to the signing. It appears, despite interest from other teams, Duchene wanted to do his due diligence to be sure Nashville’s system would be a good fit for him and vice versa.

The Predators team that Duchene joined was coming off of several successful seasons—a 2017 Stanley Cup Final appearance and their 2018 Presidents’ Trophy season. Even with a disappointing 2018-2019 first round playoff loss to the Dallas Stars, there was still a belief that the core group of Predators (with a little offensive boost provided by Duchene) could compete deep into the playoffs moving forward. The previous season’s early playoff exit was dismissed as an anomaly, not seen as indicative of the team’s general trajectory.

At the same time, there were some rumors that the team—or at least certain players—were lulled into a false sense of ability and a too-comfortable familiarity with then-Coach Laviolette. Despite a strong start in October 2019, the Predators quickly began to flounder. There were clear on-ice issues and signs of off-ice tension.

Although folks outside of the locker room can only speculate on the dynamics that contributed to the mid season firing of Laviolette, those dynamics and the coaching change were unforeseen, or easily dismissed, when Duchene signed.

Factored into the already high cost of $8 million a year was the cost of losing a strong second-pair defender.

In the July press conference GM David Poile admitted that the Subban trade was the key to freeing up the money for the hefty Duchene deal. While it wasn’t a direct one-for-one deal, the fate of Subban and Duchene will likely always be linked in the minds of Predators fans.

Of course, comparing the loss of Subban and the addition of Duchene is like comparing apples and oranges. With Subban gone, the open second-pairing spot was taken by young Dante Fabbro, who will need a little more time to grow into Subban-sized skates. The Predators’ defense went from 2.59 goals against/game in 2018-2019 with Subban to 3.10 goals against/game the following season without Subban.

Of course, Subban’s trade wasn’t the only contributing factor to a declining defense. The defense last season was also significantly affected by injuries and struggling goaltending—and the same continues to be true. So far in 2021 the Predators are at 3.44 goals against/game, which makes the need for offensive production become even more glaring if the team is to salvage this season.

Subban’s exit also meant the power play lost a solid contributor, even as Poile touted Duchene as a special teams savior. While Subban only netted 10 power-play goals himself between 2016-2019, he was second on the team in power-play assists in that same time period. A hard and fast slapshot from the blue line on the power play has been missing since Subban left for New Jersey.

Duchene’s deal may have set off a lineup and locker room pile-up Head Coach John Hynes is still trying to sage away.

In his July 1, 2019 press conference, David Poile acknowledged that the Duchene signing had repercussions for Kyle Turris, an already-expensive investment Poile made in November of 2017. Advertising Johansen and Duchene as a “one-two punch”, Poile made it clear that Kyle Turris was going to have to compete and likely contribute in a bottom-six role.

It became obvious as the 2019-20 season unfolded that then-Coach Laviolette and Turris did not see eye to eye in regards to Turris’s contributions on ice. The tension reached a new level when Turris was healthy scratched through seven games in November 2019, and the team didn’t appear to find its equilibrium from that point on.

Poile himself addressed his frustration with the players in January 2020 when he fired Laviolette and brought in John Hynes to replace him. Poile was frank when saying that firing Laviolette wasn’t the decision he wanted to make, but firing a roster of underperforming players wasn’t practical. How much of that internal tension was sparked by the Duchene signing and subsequent Turris turmoil is hard to say, but what is certain is that Duchene’s first season was not drama-free.

Without scoring goals, Duchene’s contributions to the team—and ultimately his talent—are left open to question.

Despite a season and a quarter with lower than expected points, Duchene has still been an under-the-radar playmaker in his time in Nashville. Those disappointed in Duchene often overlook the fact that he finished his first tumultuous season ranking third-best in points on the team, behind only Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg. Duchene was second-best in power-play goals, again behind Forsberg. So far this season (which is proving to be nearly as tumultuous) Duchene is tied with Josi for second in point totals behind, yet again, Forsberg.

Duchene is a playmaker in ways that don’t show up in the points column. Perhaps his best contribution in that regard is his ability to draw penalties. The ability to put your team in a position to play a man up can potentially change outcomes of games. Unfortunately, in Nashville this hasn’t been the case. Duchene’s ability to draw penalties would, under normal circumstances, be an important contribution—if the Predators had a more effective power play.

When listening back on David Poile’s words from July 2019, the obvious conclusion is that Duchene has been a bust in Nashville. It is easy to see how the Predators’ struggles could be laid at Duchene’s feet. But is that a fair assessment when digging deeper?

Who along with Josi and Forsberg dragged the 2019-20 team into a play-in round if not Duchene? With numerous other players having average (or below-average) seasons, is Duchene’s disappointment perhaps more a matter of environment? Is Duchene’s price tag the real reason he takes so much more heat than other players who are not producing? Could it be that systems and not skills are preventing Duchene from performing better?

The debate over Matt Duchene will likely continue unless and until the team turns a corner or David Poile decides to invest in a rebuild. If a rebuild happens, then the Duchene debate will turn to whether he is a part of a core to build around or if he is an asset to be sold. Either way, it’s clear Nashville hasn’t been the “old-fashioned family Christmas” Duchene and fans were promised.