Drafted third overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by his childhood team, forward Matt Duchene was viewed as an extremely fast and talented skater who would give the Avalanche a boost in a year or two. Many scouts even proclaimed him the best player available in the draft and a potential future star. Surprisingly, instead of honing his game in the AHL like most players taken out of high school, Duchene made the leap from training camp and directly onto the 2009-2010 roster -- one of two 18-year old rookie centers (along with Ryan O'Reilly) to start for the Avalanche.
Duchene struggled initially; though it was obvious he had the talent to play in the NHL, he had yet to adjust to the speed of the professional game. The team broke out to a hot start without much help from Duchene on the stat sheet, as he tallied a mere 3 assists in his first seven games. He finally scored his first professional goal against the Detroit Red Wings in the eighth game of the season, helping the Avalanche wipe out an early 2-0 deficit. But the struggles continued for the first half of the season. A total of seven points in his first 20 professional games suggested that the Avalanche front office had made a mistake by keeping Duchene in the NHL instead of letting him get comfortable in the minor leagues.
Then something clicked. Similar to Chris Stewart's breakout, Duchene began to figure out how to play in the NHL. He averaged 0.79 points/game the rest of the season and became one of the big playmakers on the team. Of course it had to be young Matt Duchene who scored the shootout goal against Calgary that clinched a surprising playoff berth for the young Avalanche team, a perfect bookend to a season that truly started with his name being called on Draft Day.
Now, 14 games into this young season, rumors are beginning to swell around him. Duchene was benched in the second period of the disastrous loss to Vancouver last week. He was publicly called out by his coach for the first time in his career and held out of the off-day practice on Friday. The prodigy appears to be hitting a wall, the dreaded sophomore slump. Is it possible that expectations were too high for this young center? What is going wrong this season for Matt Duchene?
Matt Duchene led all rookies in scoring last season with 55 points. While this would normally speak volumes about a player's first season, keep in mind the other two main candidates for Rookie of the Year were Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers, who finished with 48 points, and Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard. Yes, Duchene led all rookie scorers, but his peers were defensively minded. The last three offensive Calder Trophy winners (Patrick Kane with 72 points, Evgeni Malkin with 85 points, and Alexander Ovechkin with 106 points) all produced far more substantial offensive rookie campaigns. Duchene only finished seven points ahead of last year's winner, Tyler Myers, a defenseman.
This is not to diminish Duchene's rookie season. He showed poise, talent, and flashes of brilliance. He energized a franchise that was desperately in need of a potential savior. But his rookie season was marked by inconsistency and scoring droughts. Unfortunately, he's been pushed into a position that he may not be entirely ready to face.
Even though his name gets mentioned as one of the young talents to watch in the NHL, Matt Duchene is only a 19 year old kid playing in his second professional season. He's extremely gifted -- all doubts are lifted as soon as watch him skate with the puck -- but he's still learning how to be a professional athlete as well as the face of the franchise. Colorado Avalanche attendance has suffered the past couple of seasons, and the front office has wisely decided to build their marketing campaign around their young center. They need Duchene as a centerpiece, an example of the young and exciting team they have put together. Players like Paul Stastny, Ryan O'Reilly, and Chris Stewart are not as marketable, they don't have the same name recognition around the Denver area. Perhaps the weight is too heavy on his shoulders, at least for right now, but it has become his burden to bear.
Throughout the offseason, Duchene practiced with linemates Peter Mueller and Milan Hejduk. From all reports, they were prepared for a breakout season. The line balanced well, they had good chemistry, and they were loaded with offensive talent. Mueller would be the physically imposing left winger, Hejduk would be the deadly sharpshooter on the right side, and Duchene would be surrounded by plenty of talent to improve his game. Unfortunately, a fluke concussion late in a preseason game knocked Mueller out for the next couple of months and left a gaping hole in the second line. Sacco has placed the oft-injured David Jones in his place, and occassionally Brandon Yip, but the same chemistry is not there. Duchene is an undersized forward, and needs a larger wing at his side to take some of the physical pressure off. So far, it hasn't happened. Now, with the recent injury to TJ Galiardi, Duchene's linemates may be changing once again.
This is not meant to be an indictment of Matt Duchene.
He has struggled this season, yes, but he is still producing at a similar pace to the second half of last season, even while surrounded by injuries. Instead of the young kid flying up and down the ice, Avalanche fans are seeing a progressively more frustrated player wearing #8. He's taking silly penalties, he's trying to force extra passes, he's hesitant to take the easy shot.
Yet, with all of his difficulties this season, he is still finding ways to contribute on the ice. Duchene should be given credit for Milan Hejduk's great start, and has contributed on an improving power play. Coach Sacco benched Duchene because he should be one of the very best players on the ice. He certainly has the talent, but from a player development standpoint, he still has a ways to go. Hopefully, he approaches this first speedbump in his career with the same poise he has displayed ever since being drafted.
As fans, we have every right to expect dominance from Matt Duchene. Just not quite yet.