What to Do About the Duke

14, 36, 41, 21, 50, 35, 24, 35, 29, 27, 23 and 22

These are the goal totals for Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk since 1998. 11 straight 20 goal seasons, a feat that few accomplish in the NHL and one that may send Milan Hejduk to the Pepsi Center rafters before all is said and done.

The Duke’s current goal scoring pace? 16.714.

Despite playing in all but one game this season, the Duke is on pace for his lowest goal total since his rookie season. 3.286 goals may not seem like much in the long run, but we here at Mile High Hockey have done the Altimath and 16 is in fact VERY different from 20.

It’s possible that Hejduk will turn things around down the stretch; he’s shooting at an abysmal 8.9% compared to a career average 14.2% and he’s shown chemistry with Matt Duchene in the past, so Dutch’s return could help to increase the Duke’s production. Not to mention, Hejduk has relied on PP production for his goal totals in the past. He’s had a consistent buffer of about 10 power play goals to help reach the 20 mark. With the Avs struggles drawing and converting power plays Hejduk has only 6 PP goals on the season.

Unfortunately, Hedjie’s slide is more than just a numbers game; Hejduk has been a shadow of himself on the ice since receiving the captaincy. Management took a long time deciding on a captain this season and its impossible to judge their decision without knowing what the locker room is like, but lets face it, Hejduk’s reign as captain has been more Langenbrunner than Sakic. He seems slower on his feet and with his stick, hesitant to shoot and unable to handle the puck in traffic with the cool collectedness of the Duke of Days Gone By. Duke has lost some of the defensive reliability, especially on the back check, that made him valuable even when he wasn’t producing offensively. There are flashes of that old brilliance, but nothing seems to click for Hejduk consistently. When it comes right down to it, Duke just doesn’t seem like a guy who wants the game on his stick anymore.

To be frank, Hejduk’s line mates are only making the problem worse. Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene (2011 Edition) both seem more content to pass than shoot. Not one guy on that line wants to go to the scoring areas or be the guy to make a difference on every single shift. It’s a hard knock on 3 incredibly talented players, but they just don’t WANT the puck the way that Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O`Reilly and Steve Downie do.

Despite his drop in on ice production, Hejduk still has the confidence of Joe Sacco and the coaching staff. Of course, Hejduk is the captain, and he should probably be in the lineup most nights, not providing moral support for Kevin Porter’s nacho-fest, but should he still be getting top minutes? Against Anaheim and Columbus Hejduk played on the 2nd line with Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene while the recently hot David Jones and chemistry inducing Peter Mueller were banished to the 3rd and 4th lines. In those two games, Hejduk failed to produce a goal, had 1 assist and was a +1. In those 2 games he had 0 shots; in fact, in his last 4 games, Hejduk has only 2 shots total. Put simply, he has been statistically irrelevant, invisible on the ice and the scoresheet. Do we really think Peter Mueller, a guy who has clicked so well with Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny in the past and is instinctively a shoot first player wouldn’t be more effective in Hejduk’s place? It will be interesting to see whether Hejduk continues to earn ice time over Jones and Mueller. Hejduk was briefly demoted to the 4th line during last night's loss to Columbus, but in the 3rd period he was back on the ice with Duchene and Stasnty. So many times Hejduk would skate laps in the offensive zone with the puck no shot, no pass, just an eventual turnover and a rush the other way. But for now, it seems that Sacco is happy with the aging forward in his Top 6:

Landeskog – O’Reilly – Downie

Duchene – Stasnty – Hejduk/Mueller

McGinn – Olver – Jones

McClement – McLeod/Kobasew/Mueller/Hejduk/Porter

This lineup is passable for the next 17 games and maybe even into the playoffs. Could Hejduk benefit from a change, maybe to the Mueller-Duchene line that was so productive in 2010? Perhaps. It seems unlikely, however, that Matt Duchene will move back to center before this season ends, and that means that 1 of the scoring wingers will have to play on a bottom 6 checking line. I for one am shocked that Hejduk has ever beat out Mueller for ice time with Matt Duchene and I’ll be surprised if it lasts the season, but with Hejduk’s age and size, it’s hard to imagine him playing on Olver’s checking line consistently.

Looking forward, Hejduk’s placement in the top 6, combined with the additions of Mueller, Downie and now Jamie McGinn leaves almost no room for the Avs to sign a true scoring winger in the summer. Were he not the captain of the team with a long respected tenure in Colorado, Milan Hejduk would face many of the same offseason questions, as David Jones and it’s likely that Avs management would have serious doubts about re-signing him, instead opting for younger, high-end talent in Zach Parise or Alexander Semin. Captain or no, if an aging and unproductive Hejduk prevents the Avs from signing a true top 6 scorer in the summer, it could seriously slow the team’s progress. It seems as though, if Milan Hejduk can’t hit that magic number 20, his time with the Avalanche may be coming to an end one way or another.

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