Whoever trades for Anthony Duclair will be landing one of the NHL’s hidden gems.
Of the names being bandied about as potential trade possibilities this spring, there aren’t many more interesting than Duclair. Just 22 years old and a pending restricted free agent on a cheap contract, he could be both a bargain pickup for immediate help and a long-term fit for whoever acquires him.
Being able to get both of those aspects is a relative rarity on the trade market. As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported last month, the Arizona Coyotes are looking to give the winger a “fresh start” so their loss will be some other team’s gain.
Duclair has spent the past three years in Arizona, which is a hard place for a player to demonstrate his value. The Coyotes lost 47 games his first year, 52 his second and are currently on-pace to lose 63 games this season. Finding a good player on that kind of team is a little bit like panning for gold: one has to sort through a lot of dirt to find the value.
Gold, like quality NHL players, is relatively rare and extremely valuable, which is why sifting through dirt is a worthwhile exercise. Good players on good teams are widely recognized and carry a heavy cost, either in terms as a trade asset or by cap hit (and occasionally both). Finding a good player who is not generally recognized as such is how a GM can get a step up on his opponents.
So, how do we find that player? One useful test is to see if there’s a dramatic difference in a team’s results with him on the ice vs. on the bench.
Duclair looks pretty good at first blush. Last season, which was a mammoth disappointment, he still outperformed the team average. Over 172 games with one of the league’s worst teams, Duclair has actually been on the ice for more goals for than against, which is difficult to do. It’s a massive achievement: Arizona’s goal differential improves by almost a full goal for every hour Duclair plays versus every hour he doesn’t.
That’s a pretty long track record. Duclair has been on the ice for 89 goals for and 84 against at even-strength, or 173 goals in total. Still, if we want to be confident that good things are happening when he’s on the ice, we may want to look at his on-ice shot attempts, which is a sample of nearly 4,000 events. Does it show the same pattern?
Again, we see positive elements. In Duclair’s worst season, the results with him on the ice were still better than the numbers with him off it. And over three seasons, his lines have come really close to breaking even on one of the worst shot metric teams in hockey.
There is some need to be careful here, because Duclair was used as an offensive specialist in his first season with Arizona, with the gentle handling that kind of role usually carries. His minutes have gotten more difficult over the years, but still aren’t overly harsh. For example, in an average hour of even-strength play two seasons ago he started 24 shifts with an offensive zone faceoff and just 15 in the defensive zone; this year those numbers are 21 and 20 respectively.
Nevertheless, his numbers look really good. The Coyotes have been a pretty average team with Duclair on the ice, and that’s a massive step up from what they have been without him. But building Duclair’s case as an interesting trade pickup goes even deeper.
The evidence suggests he might be a highly efficient even-strength scorer.
Over his 190-game NHL career, Duclair has scored 0.66 goals/hour at even-strength. That number won’t mean much in isolation, but it’s about average for a middle-six forward in the NHL. Last season, Henrik Zetterberg, Sam Gagner and Nick Bonino all scored exactly 0.66 goals/hour at even-strength.
Duclair has been pegged as a goal-scorer since his draft year and not without reason. He had 50 goals in his last full junior season and is a career 13 per cent shooter at the NHL level, which is well above average. He has finishing ability and is shooting the puck more as he gets older. He’s averaging nearly one goal per hour this year, thanks to a massive uptick in his shot rate; only 60-odd guys managed that kind of goal rate last season.
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Yet Duclair is also a capable playmaker. He’s averaged 1.75 points/hour at even-strength over his career, which is a competent second-line rate. To translate that into something more familiar, that’s the same number Patrice Bergeron, Nathan MacKinnon, Jakub Voracek, Michael Frolik and David Backes put up last season.
Moreover, Duclair’s career numbers are dragged down by a lousy 2016-17 campaign.
There are good reasons to think the bad season was an aberration: Duclair’s shot rate and primary assist rate held steady and what killed him was a drop-off in shooting percentage (6.6) and a 70 per cent drop in second assists. Every player has good and bad shooting percentage years, and we have good reason to think Duclair is a finisher, so that’s not much of a worry. Moreover, second assists are less predictive than first assists, and Duclair’s first assist rate was relatively steady, so there’s probably little reason to worry there, either.
But if Duclair is such an efficient scorer, why doesn’t he put up more gaudy point totals? There are two big reasons for that. First, he hasn’t been effective on a perpetually lousy Arizona power play. It’s hard to tell if that’s his fault or a byproduct of what’s around him; either way, if he’s useful at evens it isn’t a big deal. Second, his ice-time fell in that poor 2016-17 season and has never really been bumped back up even with his improved play.
The upshot of all this is that Duclair is a wonderfully tempting gamble. He’s 22 years old, and at a minimum he’s a guy who can fill a scoring role on a sheltered second line that outperforms the opposition. There’s value in just that skill, and it’s only the minimum return.
Given Duclair’s age and the way he’s used in Arizona, it’s entirely possible he’ll become a core piece on some other NHL roster.