OTTAWA – No one ever doubts Matt Duchene’s sincerity. He’s one of the most thoughtful, earnest interviewees in hockey today, always willing to give a three-minute answer when one minute would suffice. In that sense, sitting at his dressing-room stall Wednesday, he’s his usual pensive self. But there’s a certain stoicism this time.
Excluding the slew of injuries that derailed them in December, the Ottawa Senators have given their fan base something to cheer about this season. They’ve overcome every form of turmoil imaginable – at this point, we can take a break from listing all the franchise’s misfortunes yet again – to put an exciting product on the ice, showcasing some breakout young talent, including point-per-game blueliner Thomas Chabot (now injured) and stud rookies Brady Tkachuk and Colin White. Duchene is also enjoying the best offensive production of his career. So, contrary to what many prognosticators expected, the Sens haven’t embarrassed themselves out there at the start of this post-Erik Karlsson era. They’ve shown signs of a promising rebuild, albeit one that might not necessarily be quick. They’re tied for 31st overall but hardly getting booed off the ice every night.
Duchene’s businesslike demeanor Wednesday, then, might not have to do with Ottawa’s play so far. It might simply reflect a young man aware he’ll become an unrestricted free agent this summer and that the Senators have less than two months' time to make difficult decisions regarding him and right winger Mark Stone. Eligible to hit the open market, they, too, have to decide whether they’ll make Ottawa their long-term home.
Stone, 26, said earlier this week he expects contract talks to heat up soon. He’s arguably the best two-way winger in hockey, king of the takeaway, and should command an eight-year deal with an AAV of at least $8 million. He’s also a logical pick to take over the team’s captaincy, per Postmedia's Bruce Garrioch. Stone has made it clear he hopes to remain a Senator.
Center Duchene, 27, expressed similar sentiment Wednesday.
“I’m not sure what’s gonna happen, I actually have no idea, but I know I like it here a lot.” He said. “I really enjoy coming to work every day. I say ‘work’ very lightly. I love what I do. It’s a passion. I don’t consider it work.”
If Duchene continues producing at better than a point-per-game clip, he’ll earn a major raise over his current $6-million cap hit too, likely in a similar price range to Stone’s. Even if the pair were to combine for $18 million of cap space, they’d fit comfortably under the ceiling. The Sens have more than $35 million available for 2019-20, with that number set to flirt with $40 million since the cap projects to reach $83 million. Theoretically, Ottawa has enough money to sign Stone, Duchene, and RFAs White and Cody Ceci without spending close to the cap. General manager Pierre Dorion reportedly has owner Eugene Melnyk’s blessing to re-sign Stone and Duchene.
The question looming over Dorion, however: what if Ottawa gets past the trade deadline with its stars unsigned, then ends up losing both, like the Islanders did John Tavares? That scenario at least must be considered given how adamant Tavares seemed to be about staying with the Islanders last winter.
If Stone and Duchene aren’t signed by Feb. 25, does Dorion have to consider trading them? Duchene and Stone would bring in absolutely monstrous returns if dangled as trade-deadline rentals: we’re talking first-round picks, high-end prospects and/or useful young roster players. Even with Duchene and Stone on the team, the Sens currently project as a leading contender for the Jack Hughes lottery, and that pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche. A true nightmare would be to lose Duchene and Stone as UFAs and get nothing at the deadline for them and watch Colorado draft Hughes. Landing futures for Duchene and Stone would at least negate the sting of the Avalanche owning Ottawa's top 2019 pick.
The ideal – and also the likeliest – scenario brings both players back to Ottawa on eight-year deals. After all, even a young team needs some good prime-year veterans around to show them how to win. But the tension will ratchet up as each week passes with neither player signed. The contract situations will begin to weigh on Stone’s and Duchene’s minds as Feb. 25 approaches – especially since neither has any movement restrictions on his current contract.
“As it gets closer and things move on, you start to think about it a little bit more,” Duchene said. “All year, I’ve said and just repeated over and over that I’m focused on this team and playing hockey day to day. That stuff will just take care of itself.”
That’s the hope. And, when asked about his UFA teammates Wednesday, Ceci lauded Stone’s and Duchene’s professionalism and said he didn’t expect them to get distracted. But how could they not? As Steven Stamkos told me months after he signed his eight-year extension with Tampa Bay, when he looked back on his UFA walk year, he realized all the contract talk did in fact distract him. It’s only human to think about your future when it’s undecided and the media constantly remind you about it.
“You’ve just got to let things happen,” Ceci said. “You can’t think about it too much, because at the end of the day it’s out of your control. It’s up to the GM, the owner and everyone else. They put the team together, and you’ve got to play with whoever’s around you. And if you’re here, great, and if you’re moving somewhere else, it’s just a different opportunity for whoever it is. They’ve got some things to take care of in the next couple months, so it’ll be interesting to see who’s still here afterwards.”