The past few years have been a mixed bag for Matt Duchene.
Hopes were high after he became the third overall pick in 2009. Duchene burst onto the scene with an impressive 55-point rookie campaign before eventually branching out and hitting the 70-point mark in 2013-14.
But in the seven years since, Duchene hasn't even hit 60, and his play has seen a decline since leaving Ottawa in 2018-19. But this year, it's different. Through 19 games, Duchene has 20 points, with 19 points coming in his past 14 games. Few players have been better in that span, and it's been a big boost for a team sitting fifth in a tight Central Division race.
This is more like the player we expect. Duchene may not be a top-line player on most teams, but he's playing like one in Nashville this year. Even if he's a complementary player, he's a good one at that. Nashville has always seemed to struggle to find scoring, highlighted by a 24th-place goals-for rating in the league with 2.68.
It's weird calling Duchene a surprise, considering he holds an $8-million cap hit. At that price, you'd expect 80-point paces from him each year. Call it winning a small victory if you want, but what we saw from Duchene the past few years was not what people expect from him.
For a player that has averaged an 82-game pace of 52 points throughout his career, Duchene is playing at an 86-point rate right now, beating out his previous best of 81 in 2013-14. His shooting percentage, while a small sample size, is well above his career average (12.7) at 21.4, and he's shooting 2.9 shots per game – the best since he had 3.1 in that strong 2013-14 campaign. In Nashville, Duchene's 2.07 points-per-60 is only behind Filip Forsberg at 5-on-5.
There are no two ways around it. Duchene's strong play has been legit. He looks happy out there, he's having fun. And the results reflect that.
"He had those last year, but there wasn't a ton of substance to his game," coach John Hynes told reporters earlier this month. "Now, there's substance to his game."
When everything clicks for Duchene, his mix of puck skills, hockey smarts, good vision and physicality makes him a valuable forward. He's a strong playmaker that shouldn't have an issue setting up quality teammates. And he has had those opportunities in Nashville, but nothing has really clicked perfectly until recently.
Duchene wasn't expected to be leading the team in points near the 20-game mark of the season, but he is. Forsberg's return should help the team generate offense, as he did in his two-goal outing against Vegas on Wednesday evening. That's a big picture view for Nashville, but, at the very least, they have to be absolutely thrilled with how Duchene has performed in a year in which most wrote the team - and No. 95 - off.