Matt Duchene can feel it.
Not the pressure. Not the heat. The excitement.
Six games into a goalless rookie season, it’s Duchene’s grin, not an increasingly tight grip, that defines him. He’s anxious to get on the board, but hasn’t let anxiety creep into his eerily confident game.
“I think I’m right there, I’m just one tap-in away from exploding, so hopefully that comes soon,” said Duchene after a 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night, a victory that included the 18-year-old Avs rookie being stoned by Leafs defenseman and makeshift goalie Ian White on what could have been a gimme first goal.
Part of the reason Duchene, the third overall pick in last June’s draft, can smile a bit while shrugging off near misses is the fact Colorado has jumped out to a surprising 4-1-1 start. Winning has an incredible history of relieving the pressure on a high-profile draft pick and easing tensions in general.
Last year, Steven Stamkos’ Tampa Bay Lighting had one win after seven games, which was one more than the number of points the first overall pick from 2008 had at that early juncture of the season. Even the happy-go-lucky ‘Stammer’ couldn’t help but clam up a bit while chasing that elusive first foray onto an NHL scoresheet and the situation wasn’t helped by his team’s futility. While Tampa never really turned things around, Stamkos eventually did find his sea legs and he’s been skating confidently on them ever since.
Whether it’s the effect of a happy work environment or just his natural disposition, Duchene looks like he’s content just to skip right past that whole tentative newcomer thing. He carries the puck with confidence, hounds opposing defensemen and doesn’t look for a place to hide when they hammer back.
“I think I’ve adjusted pretty well so far,” said Duchene, who has three assists on the year. “I kind of underestimated myself coming in and I realized once I got here I could play and contribute at this level. As every game goes by I’m getting more confident with the puck and without the puck, and I’ve transitioned well so far. It’s a great help, too, when I’ve got such a great team to play with.”
Everybody associated with the Avalanche is, no doubt, trying their best not to let early-season results set them up for a nasty run-in with reality. Still, there are definite points of optimism, Duchene figuring prominently among them.
Truth is, many of us who pegged the Avs for also-rans (guilty) overlooked a forward corps that’s shaping up quite nicely. Paul Stastny is back, Duchene is showing he belongs, Milan Hejduk is still pretty good and Darcy Tucker has almost half as many goals (three) through six games as he did in 63 (eight) last season.
Duchene has been skating on a line with Tucker and Marek Svatos, another wild card who’s turned up aces so far in Colorado.
“Svats is an energy guy, he’s really quick and he’s got some great hands; he can make something out of nothing,” Duchene said. “Darcy is just an all-around guy, plays with a lot of heart, he’s very smart, just knows what it takes to do stuff at this level. Hopefully I can just keep bringing a youth presence to that line, some energy and hopefully some goals here soon.”
Charmed as the first couple weeks have been for the Avs, surely nobody in their right state – even if their home one is Colorado – is about to hand this team the Northwest crown. Craig Anderson still has to prove he can be a No. 1 man for a full season behind a defense that doesn’t remind anyone of Ray Bourque, Rob Blake and pre-lockout Adam Foote. The Avs are also in the midst of a brutal stretch in the schedule that sees them play 11 of their first 15 games away from home.
But don’t think for a second all this can dampen Duchene’s approach.
“All we could do is go up from where we were ranked,” he said. “People had us 15th in the West, you can’t get much worse than that. I don’t think there’s a guy in here who believes we’re going to lose games. We’ve played some great teams and we’ve been very good and have won most of the games. The two we did lose were very close and I think if we avoided a couple errors we could have won those as well. We’re playing real well and hopefully we can keep it going.”
That first Duchene tap-in – which feels closer than ever – will help tip the balance.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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