TORONTO – The focal point of this NHL season’s only blockbuster trade awoke the morning before his 28th game in an Ottawa Senators uniform and thought about last night’s 8-2 shellacking at home to the Chicago Blackhawks, the type of loss too indicative of what should be the seventh post-season miss in Matt Duchene’s nine-year career.
“It feels like there’s a dark cloud over us,” Duchene said.
The Senators, a group painted as a low-chance trap team, have surrendered five or more goals on a league-worst 15 separate occasions in a season that has seen the Eastern Conference finalists plummet to hey-we’re-ahead-of-Buffalo territory.
Blame starter Craig Anderson’s .897 save percentage. Blame, as Guy Boucher does, a gruelling month on the road between mid-November and mid-December in which the Sens went 1-10. (That’s what killed us,” the head coach says.) Blame Erik Karlsson’s surgery or Bobby Ryan’s puck-busted finger or attendance figures that won’t increase an internal salary cap.
But take it easy, Boucher suggests, on the star centre Ottawa brought in to replace another centre, Kyle Turris, the team couldn’t afford to re-sign by summer.
“I’ve always found that trades for third-liners, fourth-liners are much easier. They don’t have the same pressure. They come in and fill holes. If you’re a top-end guy, it’s tougher,” Boucher explained Wednesday.
“Look at the guys traded at the deadline, the high-end guys. Right away they get the pressure of everybody expecting them to be great. Usually they take someone’s spot. By the time you shuffle everybody around and figure out where they feel comfortable, it takes a good month, month and a half.”
The hockey gods can be a devious bunch.
As Duchene left, at his own request, the worst club of 2016-17 and pulled a red-and-black No. 95 sweater over his head in November, the Ontario native spoke of his dream to participate in playoff hockey.
True, he had an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup of Hockey championship for Canada. But in Colorado, his favourite boyhood club that drafted him, he had just eight playoff games and zero post-season goals to his name.
“That’s not where I want to be at this point of my career,” Duchene said during his Ottawa introduction. He believed he was joining a winner. “I only get one shot at this.”
Since the three-way trade, departed Turris has hit a payday and made the Nashville Predators look deep enough to retrace their steps to the Cup Final.
The Avalanche are enjoying a five-game win streak and are in the wild-card mix. Avs coach Jared Bednar spoke to Hockey Central on Tuesday about the benefits of “a passing of the torch” from Duchene to 22-year-old Nathan MacKinnon, who’s enjoying a Hart-conversation year.
“The overall chemistry of our group certainly improved,” Bednar said. “[Duchene] had a good attitude. He had a good start to the year, which I’m sure helped make that trade happen and finally get closure on it.”
Duchene’s personal closure hasn’t been quite as swift.
“To be honest with you, he started amazing. His first three, four games were unbelievable, and it didn’t go in for him or for the guys he was playing with,” Boucher said.
“Then it became a mental thing.”
A month in, the three-way deal must’ve felt like a win-win-lose in the nation’s capital. Ottawa’s top three lines were in constant flux, the losses piled up like rumours, and the coaching staff tinkered.
Duchene’s arrival happened to coincide with a curveball trip to Sweden, the worst month of play for franchise lynchpins Karlsson and Anderson, and a frustrating injury to Ryan, a key winger. A perfect storm of imperfection.
“When you go through that, you put much too much pressure on yourself and blame yourself for things that aren’t in your control. I did that early on, the first 10 games or so,” says Duchene, who waited eight games to register his first point as a Senator.
“Because you’re still getting a feel for the team, you wonder if you were a disruption. But that’s never the case. It’s one of the things teams go through.”
It only took half a season, but Boucher believes he’s figured out his top nine. The coach now has three lines that click, and he likes Duchene’s work between sniper Mike Hoffman and the experienced Ryan.
“He certainly fits in there,” Boucher says. “Now his mind’s in the right place. I’m really happy now that he’s adjusted.”
Problem is, Ryan flew home after Tuesday’s loss because he aggravated his finger again, and Hoffman is reportedly on the trade market.
As for Duchene, who will fly away to celebrate his 27th birthday during the upcoming bye week, he’s looking much sharper of late.
On Friday, he scored three points, including the OT winner, in a signature performance against San Jose. He found the net again Saturday in a victory over Tampa.
The schedule says it’s too late, but the goals and victories are coming.
“The last five or six games I’ve been happy with,” Duchene says. “You feel more confident. You get rewarded. It feels good. For me, it’s been a day-at-a-time thing.”