Senators’ Matt Duchene still undecided on future in Ottawa

The Hockey Central panel discuss the statements made by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk about how the team will approach the NHL salary cap in the future.

TORONTO — Matt Duchene does not sound like a man ready to give up easily on the Ottawa Senators, the franchise that has bailed on so many hockey stars before him.

The opportunity to play in his home country, in his home province, to raise his own young family just a three-hour drive from where he first fell in love with the game, has been the kind of special that reflects in the eyes of children.

“The young kids that come out are so excited. You see yourself in those young kids,” Duchene said Wednesday during the latest in a series of public conversations about where he’s at and where he might be headed.

“I remember I used to come here [to Toronto] and watch games — not a lot, because it’s pretty expensive and far drive for my dad — but when I did come, it was a dream come true to watch my idols and my heroes. It’s cool now to have that script be flipped.

“It’s something I don’t take very lightly at all. It’s something that’s important to me, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

After the buzzer sounded on yet another spirited Senators loss (5-4 to the Maple Leafs) — their fifth in a row and league-worst 34th in a ball-free lottery season only 53 games old — we wouldn’t blame Duchene if his head and heart played another round of tug-o-war over his future.

“If I had a gut feeling, I’d probably go with it right now,” Duchene said. “But at this point we’re not at that point.”

The NHL trade deadline, which doubles as Sens GM Pierre Dorion’s unofficial re-signing deadline for offensive leaders and impending UFAs Duchene and Mark Stone, is only 18 days away. (Neither has trade protection built into his contract.)

Club owner Eugene Melnyk ultimately holds the purse strings on the type of big-money, long-term contracts Stone and Duchene deserve and expect. If the owner doesn’t shell out, someone else will. History will repeat in tragicomedy.

Melnyk and the Senators hosted a thank-you event for corporate sponsors Tuesday in Toronto and outlined to his supporters a plan and made a pledge.

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“The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success — where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025,” Melnyk vowed, according to a team-issued press release. “He reiterated that the Senators’ current rebuild is a blueprint on how to bring the Stanley Cup home to its rightful place in Ottawa.”

That timeline puts Duchene in his 30s.

Today, he skates beside one winger Melnyk wished they’d traded two refinancings ago (Bobby Ryan) and another who may be dealt by month’s end (another pending UFA, Ryan Dzingel). Melnyk’s Senators are currently operating at a projected $7 million under the cap, and they’re expected to shed more veteran salary this month.

“Obviously, we may have to deal with that situation here with some guys,” Duchene said. “Who knows?”

There’s no assurance when — or if — Kanata’s Canadian Tire Centre will be upgraded to a slick new downtown rink, and attendance has fallen, again, to 75.6-per-cent capacity. Only the Islanders and Hurricanes give their fans more elbow room.

“Obviously our crowds aren’t the biggest most nights, but at the same time, the people that come out and the people in the city supporting us, there’s just so much support around our team,” said Duchene.

Duchene, 28, will play his 700th regular-season game Saturday. He has appeared in a grand total of eight post-season games. The playoff-bound Jets, Predators, Sharks and Blue Jackets are just a few teams that may be eager to rent him for a run, but Duchene has also been offered a reasonable eight-year extension in the ballpark of $64 million, according to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos.

He’s well aware that the organization he’s seriously considering sticking with is 18 points and eight teams out of a playoff picture he’s consistently getting cropped out of.

“I’m looking at everything. I’m a student of the game. I watch the game. I watch NHL all the time,” said Duchene, a close observer of friend John Tavares’ free-agency sweepstakes.

“I’m watching what’s going on, what teams have and what we have here and definitely paying attention.”

And yet, the way he spoke about making a hockey home in Ottawa Wednesday makes one wonder if the Haliburton, Ont., native and new dad might just be content to play big fish in a small pond.

As a great player on a bad team, Duchene is taking big draws, earning big minutes, and hunting down the first point-per-game campaign of his 10-year pro career. (His snipe in Wednesday’s loss in Toronto brings him to 22 goals and 49 points through 44 games.)

If he remains loyal to familiar, friendly Ottawa, Duchene is a clear-cut No. 1 centre. The man. Possibly, if Stone leaves, the next captain. On a contender, he slots in as a No. 2.

“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times: This is probably the greatest group of guys I’ve played with in terms of our cohesiveness in the locker room and our morale. It’s just been a pleasure to come to the rink every day,” Duchene said.

“Not just the [players] but the people in the organization, the trainers, everything from top to bottom. It’s just such a fun place and a great place to come every day. That’s been really easy to indulge in and not worry about the other stuff.”

Really? “Some fans might find that hard to believe,” a reporter questions.

“We’ve all said it all year,” Duchene replied. “Obviously, there was some stuff that, uh, I would say we cleaned up from last year, but every time we get together — in the locker room, on the road, Super Bowl party, whatever — everybody’s together, and that’s something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Coach Guy Boucher assures that Duchene, and the uncertain cards he’s playing tight to the vest, is given sanctuary at the rink.

“In our room, we don’t talk about that,” Boucher said. “The players say it all the time, but I can say it: It’s a really good room with great chemistry in there, and everybody understands what this year is and where the organization is going. I’ve liked coming to work every day this year.”

So while the Senators’ odds of being relevant in the league Duchene watches so closely look black and white, perhaps the truth is still grey.

Earlier this week, Duchene was asked if it’s been tough to separate what the heart wants from what the head wants:

“Yes,” he said. “Very.”

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