Q&A: Matt Duchene says Blue Jackets’ culture can lead to Stanley Cup

Brian Burke discusses the Columbus Blue Jackets shockingly sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the NHL Playoffs.

Meet Matt Duchene, Stanley Cup Playoffs performer.

Fresh off a four-game sweep of the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, in which Duchene led his Columbus Blue Jackets to their first-ever series win with three goals and seven points in his first playoff games since 2014, he took some time to discuss a variety of topics.

The 28-year-old is three months into fatherhood, he’s 27 games into his career with the Blue Jackets, playing some of the best hockey of his life and loving every second of it. Here’s what he had to say about pulling off one of the most shocking upsets in NHL history — Tampa Bay had won a record-tying 62 regular-season games, the trade that brought him to Columbus, fiery head coach John Tortorella, the preparation he and his teammates are doing ahead of Round 2, keeping tabs on former teammates, and his pending status as an unrestricted free agent:

SN: First off, congratulations on the birth of your son, Beau. How has life changed since he came into the picture a few months ago?

Duchene: It’s changed for the better. It’s completely changed, it hasn’t changed at all, it’s all over the map. He’ll be crying or doing something driving you crazy and he’ll stop and crack a smile at you. And you’re so mad or you’re so tired and he’ll give you a little smile and it’s like, ‘This is all better.’ It’s really unbelievable. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever gotten to do and it’s really put things in perspective for me in the grand scheme of things. It’s helped me to take things in stride a little more, and family time is definitely even more valuable than it was before. Just hanging out with my wife, and him, and my dog, I’m pretty blessed to have the three of them in my life.

Had to share this… mama caught this moment yesterday, first time playing guitar for Beau and he loved it

21.2k Likes, 535 Comments – Matt Duchene (@matt9duchene) on Instagram: “Had to share this… mama caught this moment yesterday, first time playing guitar for Beau and he…”

SN: Shortly after Beau came along, you were traded from the Ottawa Senators to the Blue Jackets (on Feb. 22). What were your first thoughts?

Duchene: I was excited. First of all I was shocked because I thought it was going to take longer to get a deal done. The fact that Columbus stepped up the way they did was obviously very humbling. It was an honour for me for a team to make a move like that with all the uncertainty, and without a commitment from me to say I was going to sign right away. So they knew that I was going to do my due diligence and take my time with my decision and they didn’t care. So that was pretty great. First of all, to feel like you’re wanted like that is… this is a game where you’re constantly told how bad you are, how you’re not quite there, how you need to be better at this or that, so that’s one of the rare moments you get to feel good about yourself and good about your game. That meant a lot to me.

On top of that, on the day I got traded I walked into the rink as an Ottawa Senator and was going to skate with the guys and 30 minutes later I was out the door because I had been traded. But I walked in and saw that we were playing Columbus that night and I saw the roster on the board and I remember just looking at it and going, “Holy, what a lineup. There’s so many great players over there, and this is going to be a tough game for the boys tonight.” And I remember legitimately thinking that and 30 minutes later I was walking out of the rink as part of that team and playing against Ottawa later that night. It was pretty crazy and something I’ll never forget.

SN: What did you know about John Tortorella before you came? What have you learned about him since you started playing for him?

Duchene: Obviously you see all the stuff through the media, and one thing I’ve always tried to do is take all of that with a grain of salt. A lot of that is just creating a story, or creating drama, or creating good content. I knew he was a fiery guy, an emotional guy, but I knew guys who had played for him before who really liked him. I heard lots of really good things from guys who have played for him. He falls within all of that. There’s times where he gets revved up, and he gets emotional and fired up, and it’s a positive thing because you like to see that your coach is in there emotionally along with the group.

The one thing I will say, he’s a really good person. The way he cares about his players — he’s hard on guys but it’s clear he truly cares about everybody and wants what’s best for them as a person and a hockey player. I think that’s something that gets overlooked just because of some of the stuff you see in the media. I know guys respect him and feel that care for him for sure.

SN: It’s obviously a full-team effort when you sweep a team like the Lightning, but what impact did Tortorella have on the outcome? How did he get you guys to believe you could do it?

Duchene: I think we were the perfect amount of prepared for that series. I think we didn’t give Tampa too much respect, but we gave them probably the perfect amount they deserved. Sometimes you think your opponent is so formidable that you forget that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and you need to create the types of things that you need to create; the type of things that make you who you are. I think we had a great balance of that, and that was how Torts prepared us. We knew what their strengths were, and we knew what ours were, and we tried to limit theirs and we played with ours to the best of our ability.

Torts was a big part of that, but at the same time I know all the guys in there believed. Even down the stretch, when we were trying to make the playoffs, we still weren’t playing our best hockey and I think we all knew that. We knew that at some point—it was just a mental block—we knew that if we got into the playoffs, it would be almost such a weight off our shoulders that our best hockey might come out. We all talked about it and it happened. Now it’s time for Round 2 and hopefully past that. The nice part is we can go through this thing and a lot of people still probably don’t think that we’re for real, but that’s really none of our concern. It’s just about us playing the best we can and continuing to be who we are and doing it quietly. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that, and I think guys have handled themselves really well through the first series.

SN: How have you balanced much-needed rest at this time of the year with the need to stay sharp during such a long layover between games?

Duchene: We obviously would probably like to have a little less time in between games, but that’s kind of the nature of it.

But we wouldn’t want to be in any other position, and it does allow guys to get back to 100 per cent. I think we’ve done a good enough job as a group keeping our intensity level there. But giving the mind a rest is also good because the playoffs are such a grind. It’s the best type of grind you can have but it still takes a lot out of you. You wake up in the morning on a game day and you think about hockey all day, and you have to guard yourself from over-preparing and getting yourself so revved up that come game-time you’re exhausted mentally. I think it’s really important managing those emotions, and I think the time off gives us a little chance to step away.

Our last month of the season just trying to make it was also crazy, so it won’t be hard to get revved back up. The boys are excited. We still had four days after we clinched in New York and we still played a game against Ottawa and played a really solid game there. We had some time off after that, too, so I think we’re going to be able to pick up where we left off like we did before.

I think the biggest thing will be being in game-shape. I think the way we’re going right now, with a lot of guys playing the same amount of minutes, it should keep us fresh. It’s very spread out around our lineup, which is great, and it’s what allowed us to stay fresh in that first series. I think we should be able to get back on right away, and I know the guys are really excited because we all feel like we were able to do something pretty special in the first round and we want it to just be the beginning of a great story.

SN: It’s given you some time to watch some playoff hockey. What do you think of what we’ve seen in this upside down first round?

Duchene: It’s amazing. We’ve been talking about it watching it. One thing I look at is the teams that were playing and winning games and playing really important hockey down the stretch are the teams winning series right now.

I think it’s the closest season I can remember, where you play teams throughout the season and there wasn’t really anyone who blew your socks off like maybe in the past. Every year there’s one or two teams where you’re like, “Oh my god, that team’s going to win the Stanley Cup.” That’s not a slight on anyone, that’s just how close things were this year. Everybody’s good. Nobody blows your socks off because everyone’s so good and it becomes the new normal. Even when I was in Ottawa, we were beating really good teams all the time. A big reason we were where we were at when all of us got traded is we had an eight-game losing streak, which crushes you and puts you way down the standings. But before that we were two points out. And in that eight-game losing streak we had, we lost every game but one of them by one goal, so think about that. That’s a team that finishes last place, and if not for that stretch, you take out half of those losses, it’s not nearly the season it would’ve been. That’s just how tight it is now. Even the teams that finished at the bottom of the standings are definitely not pushovers. There’s no easy games and I can’t believe the parity of the league. It’s pretty outstanding.

SN: Did you watch the Calgary Flames lose to your former team in Colorado? If you did, what did you make of the way Nathan MacKinnon took over the series?

Duchene: I’ve watched every series. It’s been a really fun playoffs to watch. I think Nate’s game has taken a step the last few years, and that’s normal for young players. Different guys hit different peaks and valleys at different points of their career, and he’s definitely at a peak right now. I’ve said it many times: he’s probably the most physically gifted individual I’ve ever seen in terms of he just looks like a regular-sized guy, regular height, he looks like he’s in great shape but you wouldn’t look at him and think he’s the Hulk, but then he plays like it, which is pretty unbelievable. His speed and his strength, the way he plays — he’s just so gifted physically. There aren’t many guys that have that kind of quality.

SN: And what were you thinking watching your next opponent, the Boston Bruins?

Duchene: They’re a big, strong, heavy team. They’re one of those teams that it just feels like they never take a shift or a game off. I think they’re one of the top teams in the league.

SN: Was your team preparing for both the Bruins and the Leafs?

Duchene: No. We hadn’t talked about either because it’s foolish to waste time on something that might not happen. [Tuesday] was the first day we came back to looking at some video and looking at what we did well in the Tampa Bay series, so it’s the first mental refresher.

The biggest thing for us is knowing the strengths and tendencies and weaknesses of our opponent, but at the same time we just need to duplicate the performance that we put up in the first round. It’s not easy to think that you’re going to play that way to a tee every single night, but if we can get as close of that as possible the rest of the playoffs I know we’re going to be in a great spot. We’re going to have a chance to do something special here, and I know that.

SN: On the personal front, you’ve elevated your game. To carve out that reputation as a playoff performer, after two five-year absences from the post-season and only 12 playoff games played in your 10-year career, how important is that to you?

Duchene: I don’t try to put too much stock into that stuff. I think it can be over-analyzed. It doesn’t matter what level I’ve played at, playoffs have always been my favourite time of year and I think they are for most guys. I just love the game within the game. You get a series against guys and it’s all these little battles and little head-to-head matchups within one big game or series. I’ve always loved that kind of game within the game and I find it brings out my most competitive side. I think it’s obviously elevated my game as well. Haven’t played as much of it as I would’ve liked to and I hope there’s still a lot of playoff games for me to play, and you want to just keep on doing whatever you need to do to help the team win.

SN: Are there any members of the Blue Jackets that you feel deserve more attention as the team moves into Round 2?

Duchene: I think Josh Anderson has the ability to be the best power forward in the league. I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that size skate like that. He might be the fastest guy on our hockey team, and he’s so big and strong and he hits. His game is just starting to evolve. You can see how he’s picking up things every day and he’s just starting to slow it down even a little bit. He’ll just keep getting better.

And then there’s Oliver Bjorkstrand. Here’s a guy I knew just a little bit about. Figured he was a skilled, perimeter type of guy a little bit, I wasn’t too sure. But this guy works hard, he competes, he’s strong on pucks for how slight and small he is. And he has probably the best release I’ve ever seen in hockey. When I got here, some guys were saying that and I was like, “Seriously?” I’ve played with some pretty good players and seen some pretty good shots and there’s nothing like this guy’s shot. If you watch the way he has released the puck the last couple of months, it’s incredible. When he scored in nine of the last 10 games in the regular season, it didn’t surprise many of the guys on our team because we’ve seen him shoot the puck.

SN: What do you believe is the main reason the Blue Jackets can win the Cup this year?

Duchene: I think it starts in the locker-room with our character and leadership. I think we have a lot of young guys who really get it and understand how to be good pros at a very young age and that’s been really impressive. Our veteran guys have been around for a while. It’s just such a good, genuine group of people, and guys that say the right things and do the right things, and I just think it’s a great culture. I think every winning team starts with that. It takes talent and everything that goes out on to the ice, but if you don’t have that stuff in your locker-room, it doesn’t add up to nearly as much.

SN: At the end of it, you’re a pending unrestricted free agent. Have you thought about staying in Columbus?

Duchene: I haven’t thought much about it. I didn’t think much about it after mid-January. Since the deadline I probably I haven’t thought about it all. I had to obviously make a decision around the deadline. I wanted everything to work out in Ottawa. I really enjoyed it there and hoped things would work out. I think that team is in a stage where I think they’re going to be really strong in the not-too-distant future. But for me, and where I’m at in my career, I wanted the opportunity to be able to look at all my options. I definitely would say I would not rule out Columbus. I’m not ruling out anything.

I haven’t really been able to get into the research process because of the situation I’m in with the playoffs. It’s great, it takes a lot of stress off my mind. I’m just going to let it come to me and in due time it’s going to become clear what I want to do and where I want to be. But I haven’t even began that process yet. It’s great to experience a couple of different teams the last couple of years because you see things you like and see things watching other teams, too. But, honest to god, I haven’t given it much thought at all and it’s all going to sort itself out when the time comes.

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