Look up and down the Nashville Predators’ roster. Who’s their game changer? Who’s the player you have the most confidence in to score a big goal when the team needs it most? Based on the last few seasons and the way they’ve ended, it may be safe to say you’re scratching your head for an answer. Sure, Filip Forsberg is one of the most talented players in the league and perhaps the most exciting player the Predators have ever had on their roster, but he doesn’t always come through when the team needs him most.
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It may be fair to argue that the last time the Predators had that type of difference maker was way back in the 2006-07 when Paul Kariya was on the roster. The Hall of Famer still holds the franchise record for the most points in a single season, with 85 in 2005-06. Kariya was a member of the Predators organization for just two seasons, but managed to tally 161 points in 164 games.
The Predators are by far overdue for their next superstar who can produce like a superstar, with the latter being most important. It’s one thing having the flashy names, but they have to produce to the expected standard.
For more than a decade the Predators have longed searched for their next Paul Kariya, but one who would be in a Predators’ uniform for more than two seasons.
General manager David Poile and the Predators thought they had just the solution for the team’s lack of consistent, reliable offense when they signed former third-overall pick, Matt Duchene to a seven-year deal in the summer of 2019.
Duchene signing with the Predators was probably one of the worst-kept secrets that offseason, with many people expecting him to sign with Nashville as soon as free agency opened. Meaning the excitement and hype grew long before he ever put pen to paper and was presented with a custom-made, Predators-themed guitar by then-Mayor, David Briley at Ford Ice Center.
The Predators had finally gotten a player long known as a talent who could change a game, any game. So, the buzz around town was for good reason. But cut to one year later and that excitement has turned to confusion because Duchene’s first season in the Music City was nothing short of a disaster.
Dream Start, Nightmare Finish
Duchene did hit the ground running when the season began in Oct. 2019. He recorded 11 points during the season’s kickoff month, even notching 17 points during his first 20 games. However, after his hot start, the production started to slip. During the month of December, Duchene recorded just 6 points in the 12 games he played, tallying one goal through that span.
Unless it’s a generational type player – which, let’s be honest, there’s only a handful of in the league – no player is going to have 82 stellar games. There’ll be stretches where production is down, with hockey fans wondering what superstition did someone not follow to lead to this slump. But when you’re paying a player an average annual value of $8 million and they’ve shown they’re more than capable of producing at the elite level, there’s only so many slumps that can be tolerated. Unfortunately for Duchene, December wasn’t his only sub-par stretch during the season.
The 29-year-old experienced his worst month of the 2019-20 season during February. Duchene skated in all 14 games the Predators played that month, but only notched five points, and again like previous months, accounted for just one goal.
By the end of the abruptly-ended season, Duchene finished with 42 points in 66 games. The total was good enough for third in team scoring, but the bar wasn’t exactly set very high. Excluding Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, the whole team had a down year.
During his career, Duchene has been a 0.74 points per game player. However, his debut season with the Predators saw the former All-Star operate at just a 0.64 point-per-game rate.
Duchene’s goal total only added to the frustration level of the Smashville faithful. The Haliburton, ON native managed just 13 goals all season, which was the worst single-season total of his career, worse than his 2012-13 campaign with the Colorado Avalanche where he suited up for just 47 games.
Predators fans, although no less disappointed when their team’s forwards aren’t as reliable as they would hope, may have become desensitized to it. The Predators score by committee. Yes, sometimes that’s a good thing. But for a team that has never experienced a 40-goal scorer, it’s a necessity. It may also be a reason why the franchise is still searching for its first Stanley Cup.
The Predators were once again bitten by lack of scoring during this postseason’s qualifying round and Duchene is certainly a player who needs take a portion of the responsibility for that failing.
Nashville was eliminated by the Arizona Coyotes 3-1 in their best-of-five series. During the four games, Duchene managed just one goal and one assist. The uninspiring offensive performance from Duchene is a little harder to accept when considering he was a point-per-game player during the 2019 playoffs with the Columbus Blue Jackets, recording 10 points in 10 games.
Nevertheless, you can’t condemn the signing based on one season. Duchene himself admitted it was an up and down season for him and looks to bounce back. According to Poile, building around the $56-million man will be one of the team’s priorities, so there should be no excuses.
Playing to Duchene’s Strengths Will be Key
The GM for the Predators hinted that the combination of Duchene and Eeli Tolvanen could be seen and it would be a pairing to be excited about.
“There’s a guy that might have chemistry with Matt: Eeli Tolvanen,” Poile said during his season-ending press conference. “Matt really likes to pass, and Tolvanen is a goal-scorer… that’s something that I can see somewhere down the road that could be a possibility.”
If Duchene’s sophomore season in Nashville isn’t significantly better, fans could grow restless, and rightfully so, over the team’s mounting number of players who were brought in at a high price, only to see very little return.
However, there is good news and a reason for optimism. Not only has management stressed the desire “to find him some guys to play with,” but Duchene has proven he can’t be kept down for long.
The 2016-17 season saw Duchene record the second-fewest points of his NHL career with 41. The very next season he bounced back registering 59 while splitting time between the Avalanche and the Ottawa Senators. From there it got even better, as 2018-19 – again a season where he suited up for two different teams, the Senators and the Blue Jackets – Duchene recorded his second 70-point season, which tied his career high.
Are Predators fans right to be disappointed in this season’s production? Absolutely. But it’s way too early to judge the acquisition negatively and certainly too early to give up hope that Duchene can be the reliable, clutch player many dreamed he would be back in the summer of 2019. The centerman expressed he has a lot of good seasons ahead in Nashville during his final 2019-20 post-game press conference and based on his career stats, it may be foolish to doubt him.