It's been almost three year's since Matt Duchene's fist pump signaled the beginning of an exciting new era for the Colorado Avalanche. Duchene was the 3rd overall pick in the draft - at the time the team's highest pick since the gigantic baby Eric Lindros had been drafted in 1991. Duchene was a talented prospect, and it would not have been all that shocking if he had gone first overall. He didn't, though. That honor went to Jon Tavares and with Tampa drafting defenseman Viktor Hedman, Duchene was ready to give the Avalanche a much-needed talent boost.
Three years later, the talent is still there. But are things progressing as we all were hoping? Duchene scored 55 points as a Jimmy Howard Award finalist in his rookie year and followed that up with a 67-point season as a sophomore. Last year was going to be a bust out year and that opinion was unanimous. 82% of Mile High voters felt that Duchene would score at least 70 points. Only 3 out of 406 people felt that Duchene would be under 50 points.
Those three were right. The season was, in a stick tap to the poll starter, an unmitigated disaster. Duchene finished with 28 points in 58 games. Yes, Duchene was injured and he wasn't exactly skating with Mike Bossy. But not everything can be chalked up to injuries or poor linemates. Duchene had a grand total of two multi-point games, both in the first 13 games of the year. (John Tavares, by comparison, had 22). He was held scoreless 34 times - 58% of his appearances. His PPG (point per game) ratio went from .68 his first year to .84 in year two before plummeting to .48 last year - a 39 point pace.
Overall, Duchene is #2 in career points among players drafted in the 2009 draft. But eight of his fellow-2009 draftees scored at least as many points as Duchene did last year, three of them being defensemen (Tavares, Evander Kane, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitri Kulikov, Nick Leddy, Marcus Johansson, Ryan O'Reilly and Craig Smith). That's not fist-pump worthy...it's actually kind of cause-for-concern worthy.
The summer Duchene was drafted, I wrote an article looking at career trends for 2nd forwards taken in recent NHL drafts. I don't have the patience to fight with SBN's lousy search feature, so I can't find it. Instead, I'm taking a fresh look to see if Duchene is progressing at an acceptable pace
For this exercise, I took the 2nd forward drafted for each of the last 20 years. For each player, I listed their career PPG ratio through this season and also the number of years each player spent in the minors before making a substantive NHL debut (in other words, I ignored brief callups).
So, the average career PPG rate for the 2nd forward taken in the draft is .62 (in case you are curious, the PPG average for the first forward taken is .94 over the last 10 years, so there is a tangible reward for Edmonton stinking on a consistent basis). To date, Duchene is slightly ahead of the curve (ditto for his teammate, Gabriel Landeskog).
Then I grouped players by time spent in the minors, to see if that had any effect on career arc. I remember when I did this before that I found that, at least with these high picks, that was no correlation between time spent in the minors and career trajectory. In other words, on the whole players didn't benefit from extra time percolating in the AHL nor did players bomb out more when thrown right into the fire.
Same results here. Players who made the jump immediately have a .63 career PPG rate. Players who spent about a year in the AHL after being drafted had a .7 PPG rate, players who spent 2 years in the AHL had a .664 PPG rate and Alexandre Volchkov was a MASSIVE bust. Overall, the difference was negligible.
Finally, I looked at the PPG numbers for each player's 3rd year (where applicable) and lined them up next to their career PPG numbers
Most players who were "making it" in the NHL were hitting their strides by year three; 11 of 14 players put up PPG within 11 points of their career numbers and 6 were playing above their ultimate career average. The good news is that Duchene is in some pretty good company among players slow to get find their way. Patrick Marleau didn't break the 60-point plateau until his eighth NHL season (which, coincidentally enough, was Joe Thornton's first season in San Jose). Daniel Sedin's first three seasons: 34, 32, 31. Then he scored 54 in his 4th year and he's been in the 70+ range ever since (and accepted the Art Ross trophy on behalf of Jimmy Howard two years ago).
Duchene took a step backward last year and may have cost himself some significant money in the process (he's due a contract extension this summer). But, while his wallet may be lighter, we're mostly concerned with what's going to happen on the ice. In the end, the numbers here lead me to conclude that Duchene still could turn out to be a high-impact player; we've certainly seen the flashy talent on the ice. But right now he's not quite on a statistical path of some of the upper-tier scorers among his peers - Malkin, Toews, Spezza, Gaborik. Those players were putting up big numbers by this point in their career. The door is certainly not shut, but by the same token the clear path to superstardom is not quite the sure thing it was even a year ago. A big season could change all that...but another poor season and we may start talking about Duchene as a "good" player and not as a future "great" player.