Kevin Hayes, 27, is a $7.14-million man for the next seven seasons. As happy as that made him after he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers last week…Matt Duchene might have been happier.
Duchene, 28, is a difference-making UFA center, like Hayes. But whereas Hayes just broke out for a career-best 55 points spread between the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets in his walk year, Duchene has bested that total five times and equalled it twice more. Hayes offers a few things Duchene doesn’t, as Hayes has tremendous size and can function in a two-way role as a second- or third-line pivot, but there’s no debating who the more valuable player is overall. Duchene just set a career high with 31 goals and matched his personal best of 70 points. He’s a No. 1 center on a weak team or a No. 2 on a strong team. The shocking price Hayes fetched catapulted Duchene into an even higher salary range than might’ve been expected just a week ago. A $9-million AAV suddenly looks more like the floor than the ceiling.
So which teams make the most sense as Duchene destinations? One is such a heavy favorite that the race feels over already, but there are no absolute certainties in free agency. At this time last year, for instance, no one would’ve projected John Tavares signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Which suitors are most realistic for Duchene? Consider these five teams, keeping in mind that the list is subject to change as Duchene and agent Pat Brisson likely take meetings in the days to come.
We’ll start with the suitor pretty much going full Say Anything John Cusack outside Duchene’s window. It’s common knowledge the Predators need offense. They had the league’s worst power play and then went 0 for 15 with the man advantage in their Round-1 defeat to the Dallas Stars. Scoring an impact forward is their top off-season priority. They just cleared $9 million in cap space by trading P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils, and the motivation for doing so could not have been clearer. General manager David Poile was freeing up capital so he could chase a big-fish UFA forward, and Duchene is the natural target. He brings speed, scoring and even a well-documented love of all things country music. The city couldn’t be a better fit for team and player on a hockey and personal level.
Better yet for Nashville’s odds: with no state or city income tax in Tennessee, offering an AAV anywhere near $9 million will put more cash in Duchene’s wallet than most teams can. There are no guarantees, but it should be considered a minor upset if Duchene signs somewhere other than Music City.
The Sabres really could’ve used Hayes or Brock Nelson. The trade-hindsight game feels unfair, especially as no one could’ve predicted what happened to Patrik Berglund, but the Sabres badly missed Ryan O’Reilly after dealing him last summer. They bet too big on a Casey Mittelstadt breakout but, with no center on the roster capable of handling the tough matchups, there wasn’t enough insulation, and Mittelstadt disappointed. It’s imperative for GM Jason Botterill to bring in some veteran support. While Duchene isn’t a Selke-Trophy type, his experience and skill alone would improve Buffalo’s lineup and take some pressure off Mittelstadt and cornerstone star Jack Eichel. Even after re-signing Jeff Skinner and despite the NHL revealing the cap to be $1.5 million lower than expected, the Sabres still have $18.92 million available with no bank-breaking RFAs up for extensions. They have the cash to compete for Duchene. Also, of all the realistic suitor cities for Duchene, Buffalo is the closest to his hometown of Haliburton, Ont.
Duchene has been linked with the Habs for years, and they’re a candidate for a pitch meeting at CAA in Los Angeles. They have more than $10 million in cap space, though they have a few RFAs to sort out, including Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen, who have yet to accept or reject their qualifying offers. Paying up for Duchene might require nudging some salary out in a minor deal but wouldn’t be impossible. It would also give Montreal strong depth up the middle alongside Phillip Danault, Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
But with Ryan Poehling ready to challenge for a full-time job and Nick Suzuki developing nicely as a prospect, is center really Montreal’s greatest need anymore? Might Duchene cause a logjam? There’s a case to be made that GM Marc Bergevin would be better off addressing different positions. Then again, having too many good centers is a problem most teams would love to have, and it would force the kids to earn their way into the lineup, so we can’t rule out a pursuit of Duchene.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
There’s no messy divorce to report between Duchene and the Blue Jackets. By all accounts, he enjoyed his time there, and agent Brisson has indicated the door is not closed between Duchene and his most recent NHL employer. Given the Jackets are likely to lose Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency, they’ll have no shortage of money to throw at Duchene. They’re also the lone team that can offer an eighth year of term. At the same time, losing Panarin and Bobrovsky also weakens the team significantly, so Duchene might be returning to a team hard-pressed to make the playoffs. Is he willing to commit long term to a group that might regress in the near future?
The Desert Dogs flirted with playoff contention during the stretch run this past season, and it sounds like GM John Chayka wants to be aggressive to push his team over that line in 2019-20. TSN’s Darren Dreger recently listed the Coyotes as a team making Duchene “their primary target,” and placing Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve would release enough money to compete for him. Arizona has a lot to offer lifestyle wise and, at least on paper, the roster should keep improving. The goaltending is strong, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is signed long term and Clayton Keller remains an exciting foundational forward despite his disappointing sophomore year.
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