Matt Duchene likes to have a little elbow room.
A decade into his NHL career and now on to his fourth team, the 28-year-old center has not lost touch with his upbringing in Haliburton, Ont., an area with hundreds of lakes and plenty of other outdoor recreation options. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I’m used to having a lot of space. I love to fish. I love to be outside.”
In that regard, his new home might not be the ideal location. Duchene joined the Nashville Predators when he signed a seven-year, $56-million ($8-million AAV) free-agent pact July 1. The deal capped a lengthy courtship between both sides that included multiple attempts by Nashville to trade for him over the previous three seasons and had Duchene talking about establishing roots with his family (he and his wife have an infant son), which he expects to expand over the course of the contract.
For the past several years, Nashville has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Open space – particularly in and around downtown – is difficult to find as land is developed or redeveloped to accommodate a population boom that analysts expect will continue for decades.
But that’s not news to Duchene.
Even before he cashed in on unrestricted free agency, Duchene, the third overall pick in the 2009 draft, already had earned more than $46 million in salary during his career, and among the ways he put that money to work for him was an investment in Nashville real estate. Last off-season on the advice of Chris Kimmerer, a childhood friend and a musician who has lived in Nashville for more than a decade, Duchene purchased a residence in town. “At the time, I had no idea if I’d ever be a Nashville Predator,” he said. “I was playing for the Senators. I was really happy. It was last summer. I was committed to that at the time…It was just an investment opportunity. I felt like it was a good chance to get in that market down there and did some research on it. Our plan is to use that property as a rental property…whether it’s a long-term rental, short-term or whatever.”
Make no mistake, investments and outdoor activities are among the things Duchene uses for distractions. His one true passion is, and always has been, hockey.
Days before he signed with Nashville, he visited with franchise officials. What was scheduled as a 10-minute meeting with coach Peter Laviolette for a brief overview of the team’s systems and how Duchene would fit into them turned into a 45-minute deep dive. A short time later, during dinner at a Nashville restaurant, the two got up from the table and continued their conversation. “We got so into the hockey talk,” Duchene said. “That’s the way I am. I love to hot stove and debate ideas and talk about things. He’s a guy who wants to score more goals. As an offensive guy, that makes you drool a little bit when you hear your coach say that.”
He also wanted to make sure when he did decide on where to sign, he had no question it would be the best fit for him during what figures to be the prime years of his career. (He also met with Montreal and admitted to a certain desire to remain in Columbus.)
Top of his list of things to consider as a UFA were on the hockey side of things: the caliber of team, the style of play and the potential to add to his relatively limited playoff experience (18 games over three post-season appearances). Those even trumped family considerations such as lifestyle, entertainment options and educational opportunities. “I only get to do this for so long, so the hockey takes a little bit of a forefront,” Duchene said. “I was never going to go to a team that I didn’t believe had a chance to win. I believe that about this team.”
The Predators, who have won a Presidents’ Trophy and two division titles but have just one playoff series victory since reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup final, are banking on Duchene making them a contender once again. A player who’s averaged 25 goals and 59 points over the past six seasons figures to fill the franchise’s most pressing need, a second-line center who can consistently produce and create opportunities for others. And if that took a contract more in line with those who fill larger roles, so be it.
The only forwards on Nashville’s roster who have managed 55 points or more are the three players who have comprised the first line in recent seasons, Filip Forsberg (four times), Ryan Johansen (twice) and Viktor Arvidsson (twice).
So if things go as planned, Duchene won’t have as much time to spend in the great outdoors during the off-season as has been the case for much of his career. But he will have a new home in Nashville, one that will experience its own relative population boom over the next several years. “This is somewhere that has always felt really comfortable for us,” he said. “The whole lifestyle is just so awesome. It’s going to be fun to start to raise our little guy here and hopefully his future siblings as well. We’ve very excited.”