Matt Duchene’s Polarizing Return Against the Avalanche

Matt Duchene returns to the Pepsi Center on Friday night to face his former teammates on the Colorado Avalanche. For the Avalanche and their fans, it’s like competing against a good friend who decided you weren’t worth fighting for. Yes, he was a good friend and yes, he requested a trade but before his relationship soured with the organization and the fans. Fond memories and mixed emotions set the tone for the matchup against the Ottawa Senators.

Good Matt Duchene

Duchene was the third overall pick in the NHL 2009 Entry Draft and made his debut with the Avalanche on Oct. 1 of the same year, notching his first point, an assist on John-Michael Liles’ power-play tally. Duchene scored his first goal a couple of weeks later against the much-hated Detroit Red Wings and goaltender Chris Osgood. Colorado quickly embraced the talented forward and his flashy skillset.

Matt Duchene
Matt Duchene was a ray of sunshine in a dark season for the Colorado Avalanche. (Photo: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)

In Duchene’s first year with the organization, he became a finalist for the Calder Trophy and led all rookies with 55 points. Over eight seasons, he inspired fans and rallied his teammates. Duchene earned 428 points over 486 games in an Avalanche sweater. He recorded 67 points in the 2010-11 season when he became the youngest player in franchise history to lead the team in scoring. In 2015-16, he finally scored 30 goals in a season, the first player to do so for the Avalanche since Joe Sakic. And his face-offs were a thing of beauty.

There is more to the Duchene memories than numbers. There was the moment he celebrated getting passed over as the second overall pick, meaning his favorite team growing up could select him at No. 3. There was the goal celebration dance with former Avalanche forward Paul Stastny. There was Duchene’s through-the-legs goal – wearing a cowboy hat – while competing in the All-Star Breakaway Challenge or when he played the guitar with country star Lee Brice during the same All-Star appearance. Who could forget his playoff-clinching goal in a shootout against the Vancouver Canucks in his rookie season?

He painted his workout room at home in the Avalanche burgundy and blue. And everyone remembers his breathtaking breakaways.

Not-So-Good Matt Duchene

We may never know the full story of why Duchene requested a trade. Many things could have soured him. The Avalanche only reached the playoffs twice during his eight-year tenure. He sometimes got lost in his own head and he was a streaky player – with both scoring and scoreless streaks. The 48-point 2016-17 season didn’t help, though rumours insisted that he asked for the trade before things went south. The postseason success of his peers probably added to the pressure.

But some of the memories surrounding his departure left a bad taste. Maybe it started when he celebrated his 30th goal in a loss that hurt the Avalanche’s postseason chances. It irritated head coach Patrick Roy at the time. His three goals and six assists over the final 33 games in a dreadful season didn’t help and missing the “voluntary” captain’s skate prior to the start of last season was controversial. The way he began distancing himself from Avalanche fans during the 14 games he played in the burgundy and blue last year widened the divide.

However, what put many over the edge was his explanation for leaving. When news leaked that Duchene had requested a trade, the tide started to turn and his statements after the trade stirred the pot.

“I wanted to play playoff hockey.”

Comments like that soured part of a devoted fan base and it’s hard to believe those sentiments sat well with his Colorado teammates. Erik Johnson said in an interview that he and others in the locker room wanted to rebuild from their disastrous season with people who wanted to be “here”. Gabriel Landeskog said, “We’re still going to focus on winning hockey games and focus on doing that with the guys who want to be here.”

Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene during better times. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Johnson wasn’t trying to throw Duchene under the bus. He also noted that Duchene showed up every day, worked hard and had a good attitude. But Duchene’s public request to leave the Avalanche struck a chord and the fact he had wanted to leave for a couple of seasons felt like a betrayal.

The Ottawa Senators

Last November, during a final game before the Avalanche were to head for Sweden to play the Ottawa Senators, Duchene sneakily followed an injured Blake Comeau off the ice. The trade had finally happened. In a few short hours, he flew to Sweden on Eugene Melnyk’s personal jet to play against his former team. Duchene was ready to pursue his postseason dreams.

Matt Duchene Avalanche
Matt Duchene in his last game with the Colorado Avalanche. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

How his departure impacted the team may stay shrouded in secrecy. But it looked like it made the Avalanche locker room more cohesive. It helped Nathan MacKinnon discover a new-found freedom and the whole ordeal helped the team bond. It changed the Avalanche.

General manager Joe Sakic suddenly looked like a genius for picking up four players and three draft picks for one disgruntled skater and something unusual happened with the team. Despite losing the two games in Stockholm, the Avalanche credited that trip with helping them connect and it wasn’t long before that chemistry found its way onto the ice.

MacKinnon quickly discovered another gear and the Avalanche found a sneaky good defenseman in young Sam Girard, one of the key pieces in the trade. Colorado went on a 10-game winning streak in January where they outscored their foes 41-16. This group looked nothing like they did the previous season and proceeded to rack up 95 points, reached the playoffs and pushed the Nashville Predators to the limits in their first-round matchup. It was an amazing turnaround.

The previous season, the Senators earned 98 points, nearly making the Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, they did not experience the same post-trade boost. They finished the 2017-18 season with a 28-43-11 record and a meager 67 points, the second-worst team in the NHL.

Duchene tallied 49 points in 68 games, fourth place in scoring for the Senators.

Matt Duchene #95, Ottawa Senators
Matt Duchene played well for a failing Ottawa Senators team. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He played well but the Senators were coming apart at the seams. They traded away key players and management mishandled players, fan promotions and employee misconduct. It was a tough offseason for their fans, with some even renting billboards calling for the owner’s removal. The Avalanche faithful could relate. However, for a player who escaped for more postseason experience, the irony that Duchene would have had that experience with the Avalanche and not the Senators was lost on no one.

Interestingly, part of the Duchene trade included the Senators’ first-round pick. Because of their poor record last season, the Sens could either give Colorado the pick in the 2018 NHL Draft or hold onto it and give them their first-round pick in the 2019 draft. Ottawa chose to keep it in 2018, with Colorado getting the first-rounder in June.

Whether they like Duchene or not, Avs fans can root for Ottawa to lose as many games as possible in hopes that Colorado ends up with a top draft pick in what’s expected to be a very deep and talented draft. The Avalanche must be licking their chops. The fans are already scouting prospects and where they might rank.

When Matt Duchene takes the ice on Friday night, there will be cheers and jeers. He played well during some dark years for the franchise but he has become a polarizing character in Avalanche history. Whether appreciative of his service or for the positive impact trading him has made on the team and Colorado’s future, there’s a lot to be grateful for Matt Duchene.

One unifying point stands above it all: The Avalanche benefit from a Senators loss. Love him or hate him, Duchene’s departure helped establish the Avalanche’s rosy future. A thank you may be in order, followed by an Avalanche of goals.