The Curious Case of Matt Duchene

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 23: Matt Duchene #9 of the Colorado Avalanche looks on during a break in the action against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Pepsi Center on December 23, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. Duchene scored the game winning goal as the Avalanche defeated the Lighning 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

It's not exactly a secret that star center Matt Duchene and head coach Joe Sacco don't exactly see eye-to-eye. They come from two completely different schools of thought on how hockey should be played: Duchene believes in a fast, skilled, offensive game whereas Sacco is a proponent of a gritty, balanced, 2-way game. It's just a fact of life that these mindsets are naturally going to clash. Even Duchene acknowledged the difference between their approaches earlier this year during a radio interview, and the Denver Post published an article on the subject back in October.

While Duchene was correct when he said that learning from Sacco's approach will turn him into a more well-rounded player, it's clear that he's having some trouble finding a balance between that system and the type of play that made him worthy of the being the 3rd Overall Pick in 2009. During Sacco's first two years here, his system was more conducive to the run-and-gun game Duchene thrives in, but this season the emphasis shifted to puck possession and defense. While other players excelled in this new style of play (Ryan O`Reilly comes to mind), Dutchy has really struggled. Over the course of the past year, he has seen his average playing time dropped by nearly a minute and has been benched or placed on the 3rd or 4th line numerous times. Even despite an injury-shortened season, he only managed to score 28 points in 58 games (.483 PPG), a far cry from his 67pts in 80 games last year (.838 PPG). He was very clearly in the doghouse this year, and on multiple occasions, Sacco has been quoted in saying that he expects more out of the 21-year-old former All-Star.

Now, Sacco's contract has been extended for two more years. Given their history, what does this mean for Duchene? Elliotte Friedman commented on this very idea in his recent 30 Thoughts.

18. Duchene was benched March 22 (played only 7:21 vs. Phoenix) then saw almost 15 minutes two nights later. But then his time-on-ice falls off a cliff. Average for the final five games: 11:40. You can sense an uneasy relationship between he and Sacco. The Avalanche dealt Chris Stewart out of nowhere. If they think Sacco is the right coach, what do they think about Duchene?

To some, Sacco's extension seems like the end of Dutchy's time here in Colorado; however, there's no reason why there can't still be a spot for him on our roster. Duchene's very young and is still developing as a player. This nightmare season could easily just be a perfect storm, a nasty sophomore slump come a year late. His ceiling is the highest of anyone on the team, and this club has made it pretty clear that he's one of the core players and faces of the franchise. Besides, this is the first time in Duchene's career that he's faced adversity. Up until this point in his hockey career, he's always been given Top 6 minutes because no one else has ever had the talent to take them away from him. But this year (despite trying to learn from Master Iginla), his slump never seemed to end and Stastny and O'Reilly passed him on the depth chart. In Sacco's strict "you earn your ice time" system, Duchene may finally be starting to realize in the NHL, pure skill alone isn't enough anymore. His game still has a lot of areas that need to be improved. Those areas have always been there, but without his stellar offensive contributions drawing attention away from them this year, they've become very apparent and need to be addressed this off-season.

The Dutchy we see at the beginning of next season could very well decide his fate with this club. If he comes out guns blazing and shows that he's worked on his overall game, he'll prove to everyone (including Sacco) that he deserves his ice time and really does want to be here. A strong start-of-the-season showing will also say a lot about him not only as a player, but as a person as well - if he can work through this adversity, it will confirm that he's becoming a more mature person and that his "character and compete" are in line with what this team is looking for. But if he comes out flat again and has another bad season where he just isn't fitting in, I believe he will be traded. It's not benifitial for him or for the team to keep him stuck here if it's just not working out. We already have two other top centers on the roster and two more coming up behind them, and with a chip like Duchene, we'd easily be able to bring in at least a top-flight scoring winger. While we'd love to keep him around, he's not completely irreplaceable - especially if he doesn't start scoring again.

However, I think Duchene will end up being just fine. Whereas Chris Stewart is the type of player who can disappear enough during the playoffs to get scratched the next game, Duchene is the type that will battle through injuries and try to contribute any way he can just to help his team during their playoff hunt. Even though his biggest asset (his speed) was gone, he was still using his limited ice time to help his teammates by hitting and trying to play defense. Basically, he was just trying to do whatever he could despite his hurting legs, and look - he even scored a goal there at the very end. But most importantly, he had a very telling interview right after the Nashville game.

"I think we're all [the team] growing up very quickly and are learning a lot. I know I've learned a ton this year. As much as it's been hell individually for me this year for the second half, I've also learned a ton. You never get better in the good times, you get better in the bad times and that's the approach I'm taking."

I think this season really opened his eyes to a lot of things. He wants to be here, and even though he may not always agree with Sacco, I think Duchene is willing to work to fit into this system. Is it ideal for him? No, probably not. I'm sure that if he really wanted out, Sherman could find trade him to somewhere he'd be happy. But Dutchy is an Av at heart, and has always been. He wants to stay here. Perhaps more than any other player on this team, Duchene was destined to wear this jersey and he's not keen on giving it up any time soon.

"I can't stress it enough, the fact I want to (remain with the) Avalanche. I grew up worshiping this team, and the guys that have their banners up in the rafters, they're my heroes. My No. 1 commitment is to raise a Stanley Cup one day in this jersey."

However, if he wants to remain in the Burgundy and Blue, the clock is ticking. He'll definitely be re-signed this summer, but unless he can find a way to fit into Sacco's system, his days wearing the big snowy A could be numbered.

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