As an NHL player, as it is in any walk of life, you don’t make it to your senior years without having a regret or two. Despite all those snazzy feel-good slogans and bold declarations of perfection, you’re lying to yourself if you claim you made it to grey-hair age and had absolutely no wishes for a second chance in certain situations.
That brings us to the career arc of Nashville Predators star forward Matt Duchene. Now 31 years old, Duchene is coming off a career-best 43-goal, 86-point season last year in 78 games with the Preds, and he’s currently tied for second place in NHL pre-season points with seven (two goals, and five assists). He already scored one regular-season goal in Friday's Global Series win over the San Jose Sharks.
Along with fellow elite offense generators Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi, Duchene was a key part of the Preds’ engine with the puck, and he’s going to be depended on once again by coach John Hynes to lead the way on offense.
But you have to imagine there’s part of Duchene that wishes he could’ve worked things out with the team that drafted him third overall in the 2009 NHL draft – the team that just won a Stanley Cup, the Colorado Avalanche – don’t you?
Sure, there may have been some relationships that were broken bridges with the Avs and Duchene before he was traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2017 – but what if he’d figured out a way to stay? Would that Colorado franchise still have rolled over virtually every opponent they faced last season? Would they still have that extra something – that chemistry, that bond – that puts Cup-winners over the top in the games that mattered most?
And now, most importantly, can Duchene be part of a Cup-winner at this stage in his career, given the stage of the Predators at this point?
This is not to cast aspersions on Duchene, who will be 32 in January. He’s smack in the middle of a seven-year, $56-million contract extension he signed in 2019 for good reason: he can give you nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game, he’s a dynamic power-play producer with 16 goals and 29 points with the extra man last season, and he has made his initial two years in Nashville, when he had a combined 19 goals and 55 points in 104 games, disappear from memory.
Now all he has to do is do it again. All he has to do is continue to be the Preds’ leading scorer and hit the 40-goal plateau for what would be only the second time in his career. Now all he has to do is figure out a way to lead his Predators team to (a) at least one playoff series game win, which he didn’t get last season as Nashville was mauled by the Avalanche in a sweep of their first-round showdown, and (b) a series win or two – or maybe more, depending on the impact of superstar goalie Juuse Saros. It certainly won’t be easy to emerge from the highly-competitive Central Division and play in the Western Conference final and beyond, but that’s what’s being asked of Duchene and his teammates.
In Duchene’s years of tumult, he bounced between the Avs, Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Predators. It had to have him wondering if he’d strayed off what he thought was a championship path and now was too far away from it to claw his way back. So many things have to go right for an NHLer to wind up on a Cup-winning squad, and for a long time, it did not appear that the Hockey Gods looked fondly upon Duchene and made his life easier. But here he is, with a team that is probably his best chance at a deep playoff run, and he’s front-and-center on it.
In the best-case scenario, he and the Preds shock the world and deliver Tennessee its first Cup. If that happens, all the wrongs, disappointments and dismay in Duchene’s career become his backstory. If not, on some level, the sense of frustration has to deepen.
That Avalanche team may win another Cup this year, and if it does, Duchene has to be asking himself if it all could’ve turned out different for him. If he could’ve stayed in Denver. If he could’ve worked well with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. If he could’ve won a Cup with the Avs.
We’ll see if he and the Predators can control their narrative this year.