Senators should wait out Anthony Duclair offers as trade deadline nears

Anthony Duclair sits down with David Amber to talk about his season with the Ottawa Senators and being named an NHL All-Star.

Even the best goal scorers tend to be streaky.

The downside of those goal-scoring binges? – nasty, parch-dry droughts, when the players with the deft touch wonder why the puck suddenly won’t go in.

Ottawa’s Anthony Duclair, everyone’s favourite surprise story in December, is going through one of those dry spells right now.

A month ago, he was the NHL’s hottest scorer – with 11 goals in the nine games the Senators played between Dec. 4 and Dec. 21. He had 21 goals through his first 37 games and was once on pace to score 46 this season.

With one game left in January (Friday versus Washington), Duclair is still looking for his first goal of the New Year and now projects to scoring 35 goals, not 40-plus.

In Ottawa’s energetic 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, Duclair ran his goal-scoring drought to 12 games, but it wasn’t for lack of effort that the well stayed dry. Duclair was ever-dangerous, had several close-in chances on Buffalo netminder Linus Ullmark and finished with nine(!) shots on goal. Repeatedly, Duclair was seen on the bench shaking his head. He will bust out of this soon.

Or, he already has if you count the three goals Duclair scored against the Metro Division in the All-Star Game tournament last weekend. Must have had something to do with the presence of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Duclair scored a hat trick against his former team on Dec. 14 – three goals on three shots, including the overtime winner.

Duclair’s hot-and-cold spells are a small part of the story when it comes to the Senators decision on what to do about Duclair as the trade deadline approaches. Duclair is just 24 – turning 25 in August — and eligible to become an RFA in the summer.

Despite his slump, he still leads his team in goals (21) and points (33). Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the Senators’ top trade asset as the deadline approaches, is just behind Duclair with 20 goals and 32 points.

There will be interest in Duclair, too, at the deadline, and the Senators should at least listen to offers for this speedy winger who is on his fifth NHL team and hasn’t enjoyed a 20-goal season like this since his rookie year with Arizona in 2015-16. He had 20 goals and 44 points in 81 games for the Coyotes, production he didn’t experience again until joining Ottawa at last year’s deadline in a trade for Senators winger Ryan Dzingel and a seventh-round pick. Ottawa also picked up second-round draft picks from Columbus, in 2020 and 2021, which has made this a sweet deal indeed.

Add in the eight goals in 21 games he scored for the Senators after the trade and Duclair has a total of 29 goals in 70 Ottawa games.

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Duclair came to Ottawa motivated. He realized his career was on the line when he was traded out of Columbus not long after head coach John Tortorella’s comments that “I don’t think he knows how to play . . . he thinks he can do whatever the hell he wants on the ice.” There was also a reference to Duclair being “off the rails.”

Every young player should get a chance to learn from his mistakes, and Duclair has so far shown himself to be very coach-able. Clearly he wants to stay here for a while. From the All-Star Game in St. Louis, Duclair told reporters that as a young player, he sees himself as part of the club’s rebuild.

“When Ottawa’s going to become a contender, I want to be part of that,” Duclair said. “So I’m working as hard as I can.”

There are bound to be skeptics on Duclair, considering how he has packed up and moved from the New York Rangers, the Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks and Blue Jackets to his current destination of the Nation’s Capital. If he played in an earlier era his nickname might be ‘Suitcase,’ like Gary ‘Suitcase’ Smith of Ottawa, a goalie who once played for seven NHL teams plus others in the AHL, WHA and CHL.

There is a case to be made that the Senators could trade Duclair while his value is high, rather then buying high on a long-term contract for a player who hasn’t yet proven he can be a consistent NHL performer.

There is a third option, which might be the most prudent.

Status quo. Let things ride.

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Because Duclair is only approaching RFA status, not unrestricted, the Senators hold all the cards as far as Duclair’s future. They can offer him a short-term deal or qualifying offer and if it’s not agreeable to Duclair, he has arbitration rights. Another year would provide a larger sample of work from which to judge Duclair’s place on a rapidly-evolving roster.

Last summer, the Senators provided Duclair with a one-year deal for $1.65 million and challenged him to prove he could be part of Ottawa’s future.

For the most part, he has done that. And still the Senators don’t have to commit, just yet.

Head coach D.J. Smith, who doesn’t have many goal-scorers at his disposal, has leaned on Duclair and provided him opportunities on both special teams. Though he hadn’t killed penalties since his junior hockey days, Duclair has relished that chance here and tapped into veteran centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau as a source of information on the art of the kill.

When Duclair was announced as Ottawa’s representative at the All-Star Game (teammate Brady Tkachuk joined him as a late replacement player), general manager Pierre Dorion and Smith were thrilled for the player known around here as The Duke.

Smith has said he loves the character, work ethic and energy of his young winger, who clearly no longer just does “whatever the hell he wants,” to borrow from Torts.

With 30 blocked shots, Duclair is third among Ottawa forwards in this blue-collar category, behind only Pageau and Namestnikov.

Smith has said he trusts Duclair enough to continue to use him on a night when he’s struggling, so he can work himself out of it. Smith went so far as to say Duclair is becoming a “core player” in the room.

This is where it gets interesting. How much a part of that core will Duclair be down the road, when presumably Ottawa has a lot more talent, based on prospects in Belleville and from this year’s draft, which includes two potential lottery picks for the Sens?

For Dorion, the beauty of the Duclair situation is that there isn’t the urgency on this file there is on his myriad UFAs as the deadline approaches.

If someone knocks his socks off with an offer for Duclair, Dorion can listen.

If not, he can afford to wait until after the season to sort out a contract for a player working hard to earn one.

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