In a season filled with team records matched, broken, and set, Nashville Predators fans had a lot to be excited about. Matt Duchene was certainly part of the excitement as he and linemate Filip Forsberg went goal for goal on the way to breaking the team’s single season scoring record. Duchene wound up the leader, with 43 goals, at the end of the season, making it not only the best of his career, but also the best in Predators history.

Coming off of such a successful season, Duchene seemed like he was on the precipice of a victorious second act. His arrival in Nashville was much celebrated, but quickly drew criticism as his performance didn’t meet the team’s, nor the fans’, expectations. Cue a 43-goal season and a lot of those fears seemed to dissipate on the parts of both the team and the fans.

The offseason brought with it the whispers of the dreaded regression monster as many, including Alex Daugherty on the ‘On The Preds’ Podcast, warned that Duchene’s career-high 18.9 shooting percentage was not sustainable. Regardless, the season started with high expectations for Duchene with many expecting another round of heavy offense from the forward. As the season started, it appeared that the Alex Daughertys of the world were on to something.

By the numbers

Through the first 15 games of the season, Duchene claimed a statline of 3-8-11. His 3 goals came from his 36 shots, giving him a shooting percentage of 8.3%. Not only is this a dramatic change from last season’s 18.9%, but 36 shots through 15 games put Duchene on pace for 197 shots for the season, much lower than his (also career high) 228 last season. The combination of a lower volume of shots and a lower shooting percentage put Duchene on pace for 16 goals this season–a far cry from last season and cause for concern as a new one begins.

The Coach weighs in

John Hynes addressed Duchene’s production after practice on Monday, “I think when Matt’s playing his best hockey, he’s playing a fast game. He skates. I think when he’s at his best there’s more pace to his game. I think he can be more multiple threats, whether it’s on the rush with wide speed. Sometimes he can beat guys wide but if he’s coming fast and can back people off, he checks up and there’s more opportunities for him to create and use his skill and his hockey sense. Sometimes, now, there are games when it is there, but there’s other times when it’s slower and more stationary. It’s tough to create in a game now if you’re not playing at a pace because everyone closes so fast and checks so quick.”

Analysis

A quick glance at Hynes’ comments seem like a condemnation of Duchene; the numerous mentions of “pace” and “speed” seem like his coach is calling him slow. However, this really isn’t the case. What Hynes is really saying is that Duchene isn’t getting opportunities to use his speed the way he did last season. There are several reasons for that and very few of them have anything to do with Duchene himself.

Duchene is most dangerous when he’s coming off the rush or heading through the neutral zone with speed. One of the biggest complaints about the Predators this season has been that they seem slow. The largest reason for that has to do with passing. Passes just ahead of or just behind their intended target prevent the skater from moving with speed. The half-second it takes to collect the puck is enough give the backchecker a chance to close in. Once that happens, forget about blowing by the forechecker. As Hynes said, “It’s tough to create in a game now if you’re not playing at a pace because everyone closes so fast and checks so quick.”

Some of the other issues stem from the other major complaint about the Predators this season and that’s they aren’t playing to their identity. This identity was incredibly familiar to fans and opponents alike last season. That identity involved a strong, physically aggressive game that focused on forcing the opposition into areas where they faced difficult puck battles and forcing them to earn every inch of ice they gained. This came from aggressive checking and a commitment to physical play. One of the results of this style was opening up space for skilled, creative playmakers (like Duchene and Forsberg) to make things happen. Hynes made the comment, “I think if we can help him and he can help himself get back to that style of game, that’s when he plays his best. That’s when he’s most productive.” That “help” Hynes speaks of isn’t some drill in practice or a power skating session, he’s talking about the entire team leaning back into that identity and helping open up space for Duchene to work his magic.

The other major thing to consider is that every scouting report on the Predators is going to focus on Duchene this season. Coming off of last season, he’s on everyone’s radar as a guy that needs to be shut down. He’s facing a lot more pressure from opposing teams as part of their game plan. This, when combined with the other issues mentioned in this article, create a perfect storm that’s led to this downturn in Duchene’s production. That’s where the “slower and stationary” comments come in–when Duchene doesn’t have space, his feet slow down and he has to think about what to do next. Whether that’s looking for a pass or making a dump-in, he’s not getting to play the game the way he needs to play to be successful.

Duchene responds

Of course, all of this–the stats, the comments, the analysis–is after only 15 games. The Predators have played 16 games and Matt Duchene had the chance to respond Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild. The game, which the Predators won 2-1, certainly looked like a return to the identity the team is used to playing with. Nashville had 43 hits to Minnesota’s paltry 22 and committed to strong defense with 19 blocked shots to Minnesota’s 10. The game was physical and even though Nashville’s combatants didn’t fare very well on the fight card, they were more than willing to play right up to line, even crossing it a few times. Duchene notched a secondary assist on Niederreiter’s goal and scored one of his own on the power play.

More importantly, this was Duchene’s second game with his new linemates. After starting the season with Forsberg on Mikael Granlund’s wings, Duchene moved to play with Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, a move necessitated by Juuso Pärsinnen’s arrival at 1C.

Duchene had 4 shots on goal and those updated totals moved his statline to 4-9-13, his shooting percentage jumped up to 10% (from 8.3%), and his pace for goals this season moved from 16 to 21. Of course, these aren’t astronomical gains, but movement is movement and after a slow start, it will take time to bring those numbers closer to what everyone expected.

Duchene reacts

After the victory over Minnesota, Duchene had the chance to talk about the game, first addressing the team’s overall approach and pace of play, “Right now we’re desperate for wins. I think we may be starting to overthink a bit when we’re up a couple of goals instead of just staying on the gas and playing loose mentally and playing with that aggressive style. We’ll keep working and building. Our game is getting better right now. It’s baby steps, but we’ve got to stay hungry and keep trying to improve.”

Staying loose mentally is definitely something he’s working on and seemed to do much better with as an individual than in previous performances. He also attributed a lot of his success on the night to his linemates, “We’re a line that plays fast and hard on the forecheck. We’re three pretty heavy guys in the corner and on the forecheck and guys that can skate over pucks and physically dominate.”

Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter both excel at creating space on the ice. Johansen has sneaky speed, a huge reach, and great passing skills. Niederreiter can play a deceptively heavy game when needed that can sometimes overshadow his passing skills as well. Duchene took full advantage of that space on Tuesday night and seemed much more comfortable on the ice, finding more space to create off the rush. Discussing Niederreiter’s goal, he added, “Those are the kind of plays that our line can make where you probably shouldn’t get a scoring chance, but those two guys can do that type of thing.”

While it’s clear Duchene feels right at home on his new line, he also noted, “As a line and as a group, our entire team was ready to go out of the gate.” Again, that “help” Hynes mentioned earlier came through as the team stepped into their identity to create space for Duchene. Duchene’s results on the night back it up.

Hynes reacts

Coach Hynes was able to give his thoughts on Duchene’s game during his post-game availability, “I thought Matt looked much more like he does when he’s playing his best. He’s such a skilled and talented guy, that when he’s able to play with strong pace and he’s moving his feet, the game opens up for him. Whether its individually for him or his ability to make plays to his teammates. I think it was a step in the right direction for him.”

The season is far from over for the Nashville Predators, but things are headed in the right direction. Matt Duchene is starting to make the slow, but steady climb back to where he wants to be, but his success or failure doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders. If the team can commit to their previously established identity, they’ll create the space players like Duchene (and Forsberg) need to produce the offense the Predators desperately need to right the ship and have a successful season.

–featured image via Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports–