By now, you’ve seen and heard the John Tortorella quotes on Anthony Duclair so many times you could recite them chapter and verse.
This was last February, when Tortorella was coaching a Columbus Blue Jackets team about to load up at the trade deadline for a playoff run.
“Torts” didn’t exactly enhance Duclair’s trade value when he said of the then-23-year-old forward:
“I don’t think he knows how to play. I don’t. It seems to me he’s like a player that feels he can get the puck, because he’s tremendously skilled – he can skate, he has all those things as you guys know, I just think he thinks he can go do whatever the hell he wants on the ice. He can’t do it in the National Hockey League.”
There was more. Tortorella said Duclair was “running out of time” on his fourth-career team. In another passage, he referred to Duclair as being “off the rails – I’m not sure we’re going to spend a lot more time trying to get him back on the rails.”
Ten months later, we’ve come to learn Duclair actually can do whatever the hell he wants to in the NHL, and succeed at it, given the right circumstances.
Traded to the Ottawa Senators at the deadline along with two second-round draft picks (2020, 2021) for Ryan Dzingel and a seventh-round pick in 2019 (used to draft centre Tyler Angle), Duclair has been the best of GM Pierre Dorion’s many acquisitions last season.
Over the weekend, Duclair wrote a storyline that would make for a lovely young reader’s book on how to soak up the pleasures of revenge, without appearing to gloat.
Duclair’s hat trick against the Blue Jackets, including the overtime winner on the power play, had to be as sweet for the “Duke” as it was sour for Tortorella standing behind the Columbus bench.
Although he allowed himself a mighty fist pump after the OT one-timer, Duclair refused to revel in an act that made his former coach eat his words.
“It feels good,” Duclair said softly afterwards, of his hatty and game winner. “It’s nice to get the win with them coming back in the third there. We learned a good lesson for sure. I’m just happy we played well.”
Frank Sinatra once said about getting even — “The best revenge is massive success.”
It’s been the story of Duke’s season. With 18 goals in 33 games, Duclair is among the top ten goal scorers in the NHL and has more goals than established stars like Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Mathew Barzal.
One of the league’s bargains at $1.65 million on a one-year deal, Duclair has three times more goals than Dzingel, who signed with Carolina in the off-season, and more than any current member of the Blue Jackets, a team that could use a guy like Duclair out there “off the rails.”
Duclair started scoring the moment he got off the plane for his latest dressing room. In 54 games with the Senators, he has 26 goals, including eight last season after the trade. His career high for a single season is 20, from way back in 2015-16 with Arizona. It seems reasonable to forecast a 40-plus goal season in 2019-20 for this pending RFA.
Like Duclair, D.J. Smith took the high road after the overtime win against Columbus, playing down the angle of Tort’s anguish level.
“I don’t think it matters if it was against his old club, he just wants to help his team,” Smith said.
Smith did a nice job of putting Duclair’s success into perspective. On a rebuilding team like Ottawa, whose No. 1 need is top-end talent, Duclair has had opportunities he didn’t get with Columbus. He’s allowed to make mistakes, where a defensive tight-wad like Tortorella wouldn’t budge. Smith taps into Duclair’s speed and skill by using him to kill penalties, which in turn helped Duclair’s confidence go nuclear.
Torts is hardly alone in feeling he knew the “book” on Duclair. While Duclair showed signs of emerging as a scorer with Arizona, he subsequently struck out in auditions with Chicago and Columbus. (Drafted by the New York Rangers in the third round, 2013, Duclair played just 18 games for New York and had one goal).
Here’s a player who has clearly recognized the need to latch onto one of these opportunities and Ottawa has been a good fit right from the start for the maturing 24-year-old.
“If you’re on a team that is loaded with goal scorers and you have an off night, you don’t get that opportunity,” Smith said. “Here, he’s proven — he continues to score. When you need goals, Duke’s the guy you go to. But what I have liked about him, his work ethic has seriously improved. He’s very responsive. His teammates like him, he’s a team-first guy.
“It’s great when a guy like that has success, I think the other guys pull for him.”
Goaltender Anders Nilsson, who turned in another strong effort in the 4-3 victory, certainly sounded like a guy in the Duke’s corner.
“He’s had a huge impact on our team the whole season and it’s fun to see him play the way he can play and how good he is,” Nilsson said. “He has a great shot, I know that from practice. He’s a hard player to stop and I’m happy for him.
“He works hard and he’s a great guy. So It’s great to see him rewarded with goals, and important goals, especially against his former team.”
Of course, the biggest question with Duclair is what kind of contract to afford him, assuming the Senators would like to keep him.
Having already extended the younger (22) Colin White for six years at an AAV of $4.75 million only to see him struggle in his sophomore season, Ottawa doesn’t want to go nuts on Duclair based on one boffo season. If they can get him signed to three or four years at the $4M-plus range. That would represent a show of faith in the player, while giving him a chance to earn a much bigger deal at age 27 or so.
Longer than three to four years seems like a risk for a team that will look very different in a few years’ time.