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Matt Duchene is driving up his price with each passing game

Not much has gone right for the Ottawa Senators this season, but Matt Duchene’s play has been a definite bright spot. It’s only going to drive up the pending free agent’s price, though.

Matt Duchene is about to get paid.

It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow and it might not be until the rapidly declining Ottawa Senators’ season comes to a merciful end, but Duchene has a hefty raise coming his way in the not-too-distant future.

Reason being is that the 27-year-old center, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, has been exceptional through the first 23 games of the season. As he plays out the final season of a five-year, $30-million contract he inked back in July 2013, a pact that pays him $6-million per season, Duchene’s 10 goals and 29 points put him on pace for a career-best 36-goal, 104-point season. That’s six goals and 34 points more than he’s scored in any other season. And Duchene already has nearly half the point total in 23 games that he managed in a full 82-game campaign with the Senators last season.

To be sure, Duchene was already considered one of the prime pending UFAs before the campaign began. An in-his-prime center with some two-way acumen and a scoring touch is always going to be a hot commodity, and it’s rare, excepting John Tavares’ recent foray onto the open market, that a player of his ilk hits the market. But his performance this season, and his track record over the past few seasons, was destined to earn him a big-money pay day this summer.

To get an idea of the kind of company Duchene keeps as an attacker, consider his offensive totals. Over the past three-plus seasons — from the start of the 2015-16 campaign through to present-day — Duchene has scored 85 goals and 188 points in 258 games. That works out to .33 goals and .73 points per game. In the lamp-lighting department, Duchene’s contemporaries over the past few seasons include notables such as Jonathan Toews, Jon Marchessault, Zach Parise and Nazem Kadri. When it comes to finding the scoresheet, period, Duchene’s rate is similar to that of Rickard Rakell, Eric Staal, Kyle Connor and T.J. Oshie.

But there’s one more comparable, similar enough in goals (seven-hundredths of a goal per game separates the two) and near identical in points per game (a difference of two-hundredths of a point per outing) that is worth exploring: Duchene and Jeff Skinner.

In total, the two have played 258 and 266 games over the past three-plus seasons, respectively, and their overall numbers are exactly the same. Whereas Skinner has the edge in goal scoring — 106 to 85 — Duchene has the same advantage in assists — 103 to 82 — with both players boasting identical 188-point totals since the start of 2015-16. And given the similarities in offensive production between the two players over the past three-plus campaigns, not to mention the fact both have been on fire to start the 2018-19 campaign as they each head towards free agency, it seems only natural that the two be used as comparables.

When it comes to signing his own deal, though, there may be two schools of thought for Duchene, who has reportedly begun contracts with the Senators.

On one hand, Duchene can attempt to set the market for a free agent of his calibre. He’s not going to get Tavares money. That much we know for certain. He’s probably not going to get a contract that pays similar in nature to that of Nikita Kucherov or Tyler Seguin, either, nor should he given both have out-produced Duchene by a significant margin over the past few campaigns. But his recent success is going to drive up his price tag, especially if he maintains this rate of scoring throughout the campaign. And given he’s in the prime of his career — albeit likely the second half of his best years — it could be reasonably expected that Duchene could fetch somewhere in the $8-million neighborhood, maybe even more, on his next contract. That’s not as great an overpayment as it may seem, either, when considering Ryan Johansen, who has .18 goals per game and .74 points per game since the start of 2015-16, signed an eight-year, $64-million deal in July 2017. In today’s cap world, a contract eating up a similar amount of the cap’s upper limit would pay $8.48-million per season.

But what if Duchene waits for Skinner to make the first move? It’s no doubt a possibility for the 27-year-old, and it provides a fairly excellent one-to-one comparable for Duchene. With the way Skinner has played in Buffalo, and the possibility that he flirts with or surpasses the 40-goal (and maybe even the 50-goal) plateau this season, he’s going to be in line for a massive raise in the summer. The 26-year-old is a sharpshooting, top-line winger that has already proven he has 30-goal potential. That was going to make him a hot commodity in the off-season even before this season, but it’s all but certain Skinner has raised his asking price significantly — and will propel it well into the $8-million range if he’s coming off of a 40-goal season — with his performance thus far.

And if Duchene wants to play off Skinner’s contract, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to. Those kind of comparisons inevitably set the market. Would Jack Eichel have put pen to paper on an eight-year, $80-million deal without Connor McDavid signing an eight-year, $100-million contract? Not a chance. Would the Stars have signed Seguin for nearly $10-million per season without John Tavares earning $11-million annually from the Maple Leafs? Maybe, but Tavares’ contract ensured Seguin was going to get close to the eight-digit range with his pact. So, it stands to reason that Skinner’s eventual deal, one that the Sabres should be working tirelessly to sign him to given Buffalo’s red-hot and his value is going up by the day, will impact Duchene’s and vice versa.

No matter what Skinner signs, though, one thing is clear: Duchene is going to get his, and he’ll likely be adding at least another $2-million to his cap hit before the 2019-20 campaign rolls around.

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