At the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, a player’s dream came true when the Colorado Avalanche drafted Matt Duchene with the third overall pick.
Really, how often does that get to happen? Top-five picks rarely get to go to the team they’ve always dreamed of playing for, with little leeway involved in selecting the best available player for a roster.
Connor McDavid, a good Ontario boy who grew up with the Toronto Maple Leafs, is in Edmonton. Jack Eichel, Massachusetts born and raised, is with the Buffalo Sabres. Arizona Coyotes fanatic Auston Matthews went to Toronto, and Jonathan Drouin - a Montreal Canadiens fan in his childhood - started his career in Tampa Bay before heading home to Quebec.
Duchene, though, got a chance to play for the team he’d loved as a child, and got to do it for the players he’d idolized.
As with all real-life fairy tales, there was always the question of when the other shoe would drop, so to speak.
In a career shy of 600 regular season NHL games, Matt Duchene made it to the postseason with Colorado just twice - first in his rookie campaign, then during his first season under head coach Patrick Roy, who was supposed to be the savior that brought the team back to the Bob Hartley Era.
In an admittedly small sample size, Duchene earned the ire of fans for poor postseason performance, failing to record a goal across a combined eight games.
Forget the fact, of course, that he had three points in six postseason games as an NHL rookie, then three assists in two games in his second postseason stint; by the time his years under Roy were coming to a close, it became clear that Duchene was as frustrated with the team as fans were.
It came out earlier this week that Duchene had ultimately requested a move out this past winter. So don’t be fooled - the team’s dealing of him to the Ottawa Senators didn’t come as some huge shock, even with all the trade rumors that have circulated over the years. It was very much what he wanted as much as it was what the team needed.
And the return was good, bordering on great. Samuel Girard is a bona fide blue liner at the NHL level, Shane Bowers is supposed to be quite good, Vladislav Kamenev has a lot of underrated potential and they now boast a plethora of picks to do with as they please.
The only real problem, at this point, is how the team handled it. And that, in itself, suggests that the Avalanche still don’t quite get it under Joe Sakic.
Watching the trade unfold was, for the hockey community, nothing short of entertaining.
First, the preliminary deals of the trade came out via multiple NHL insider reports. Duchene was heading to Ottawa, they said, while fellow center Kyle Turris went to Nashville and an unnamed set of assets was to be disseminated by the Predators.
The deal was dead, though, the insiders insisted. While this had been the initial plan, someone from the three teams had backed out at the last minute - and with the deal so close at hand, it was hard to imagine things hadn’t hit a serious wall to have the plug pulled at the very end.
That’s when things really got out of hand.
The Avalanche were set to play their next game that following afternoon, the second of a back-to-back road trip through the Metropolitan Division before heading to Sweden for a two-game series against none other than the Ottawa Senators.
They started the game at 4PM EST in Brooklyn, icing 11 forwards as it was and starting off the game on a poor note.
Then, midway through the first period, forward Blake Comeau was injured and had to be helped off the ice. While he was skating off, Duchene - who had logged about two minutes of ice time and won his only faceoff so far - snuck off the ice behind him, following him down the tunnel.
Level heads reassured the wild Twitter community that for all they knew, Duchene just needed to leave the ice for a personal reason (nagging injury of his own? Bathroom break?). As time elapsed, though, it became clear; in the middle of his second shift of the game, Matt Duchene had been dealt to the Ottawa Senators and pulled off the ice.
Not just in the moments before or after a game, when he was already either in a ready-to-play mindset or coming down off the high of a win or loss.
Not just during intermission, a la Mike Cammalleri with the Montreal Canadiens.
No, the Colorado Avalanche pulled their most productive forward over the last decade off the ice in the middle of his shift, informing him he’d been dealt to another team while he was out attempting to win them a game. He was forced to change into street clothes and leave the rink during a game he’d been playing in just moments before, having to choose between sticking around to chat with his old teammates and say goodbye or go prepare for a flight to Sweden with an entirely new team.
Because yes - the Avalanche dealt Duchene the afternoon he was set to fly to Sweden with them, leaving him to figure out the least awkward way to travel to another country with a club he’d never been a part of before.
Teams don’t usually trade players in the middle of games, for a number of obvious reasons.
If a player is expected to be dealt during a game, with another GM just waiting to finalize the deal on that particular day, the club generally scratches the player in question to prevent this kind of confusion. It eliminates uncertainty - did Duchene just skate a few minutes under contract for another club? Does he wait to talk to everyone after, or just leave the rink? Is the general manager paying attention to the trade instead of the game at hand? - but it also eliminates a certain level of personal strain placed on the player in question.
It’s apparent that Matt Duchene wanted out. He’s wanted out, in fact, for almost a full year at this point - and after the hemming and hawing the Avalanche exhibited this summer and heading into training camp, it’s likely he wanted out very, very badly.
Even a player absolutely desperate for a change deserves a certain amount of privacy in this situation, though.
A trade is a big deal, especially for a player who has never known another NHL club. It’s rattling, any former NHLer can attest to that (and they do, quite often, telling stories of just how hard it is to be fully prepared every year around deadline time). It’s the kind of thing a player deserves to hear about in private, either at home or in the general manager’s office on an off day.
Instead, Duchene found out in about the most public way possible, when he saw team personnel talking on the bench before pulling him off the ice.
He didn’t get the requisite time to process the deal, instead having to address media in street clothes during a time he likely expected to still be out playing the game. He handled it well, calling it merely ‘strange’, but it was in poor taste at very best.
Some call it unprofessional, but it was quite the opposite. It was, from a management standpoint, nothing but business - no consideration for the player, the team he left behind for the rest of the game (down yet another forward in a contest they’d already started short in that area), or the coaches scrambling to adapt.
There was no precaution taken for the player’s sake via a healthy scratch, and no waiting until intermission to finalize the deal. Sure, one could argue waiting would increase the risk of injury to Duchene before things were finalized after 20 minutes, but Sakic tossed that consideration aside when he dressed Duchene for the game that close to a finalized deal anyway.
It’s not that the Avalanche lost the trade; they didn’t. If possible, they likely won it.
It’s not that they shouldn’t have dealt Duchene, either. It’s been clear for a while that he wanted it, and the team’s treatment of the situation over the summer only pushed him to want it even more.
It’s that the lack of consideration for one of Colorado’s most loyal players - and for the team as a whole, really - shows a fundamental lack of foresight on the part of Joe Sakic and the management team.
With the Avalanche in the Sakic era, it’s never really been the big slip-ups. They haven’t traded for Zac Rinaldo or swapped PK Subban for Shea Weber. They haven’t moved out Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle for a lack of scoring and a diminishing return, they haven’t drafted Jake Virtanen in the Top 10, and they haven’t gotten fined for illegally approaching another team’s players.
Instead, it’s been the little things, the lack of cohesion between the team and the management staff, that leave the Avalanche hard to take seriously.
Patrick Roy was certainly a part of the problem when he suddenly offered his resignation two summers ago. His refusal to accept the validity of statistics driving the team’s poor results, his incessant finger-pointing, and his barbed comments made it hard to believe he was a positive presence in a locker room.
His parting words, though, are oddly relevant now:
“I have thought long and hard over the course of the summer about how I might improve this team to give it the depth it needs and bring it to a higher level,” he wrote at the time, via his official press release. “To achieve this, the vision of the coach and VP-Hockey Operations needs to be perfectly aligned with that of the organization. He must also have a say in the decisions that impact the team’s performance. These conditions are not currently met.”
It had become increasingly clear that Sakic and Roy were butting heads, and Sakic was having the final say in all areas - to the point, it appears, that Roy’s frustration bubbled over and he abruptly left the club without a second thought.
It’s hard to imagine that Bednar isn’t feeling a similar sense of frustration now - although hopefully not, at this point, to that extreme.
Duchene came into training camp with the situation already grossly mismanaged. He’d been the most publicly talked about trade piece around the league, with Sakic openly admitting trade talks weren’t getting him what he wanted. He showed up the first day of skating, and gave the team a whopping four goals and 10 points in 14 games, but stated at the start he was there to honor his contract. He’d lost any spark he’d once had for playing for his childhood team, and it couldn’t have been more obvious.
That put Bednar in a position where one of his top players didn’t want to be there to begin with, then put him in another situation where he lost that player in the middle of a shift - at the same time he was losing another player to injury. That’s nine forwards in the second game of a back-to-back, a position it’s hard to believe Bednar was thrilled to be put in.
Maybe, the trade pieces are just what the team needed. Maybe they’ll finally get back to their days of winning championships.
When you look at the last few Cup winners, though, you’ll notice that trade situations like this just don’t happen. Hard to imagine there isn’t a correlation there.