The Nashville Predators have emerged as the favorites to sign Matt Duchene come July 1. It’s a dubious honor, unfortunately.
That’s not to suggest that landing the pending unrestricted free agent would be horrible. It would be a major coup. After all, Duchene is a legitimate top-line talent, if not an outright superstar. That doesn’t make him a good fit, though.
Predators’ Power Outage
Admittedly, an offensive boost is sorely required for a team with the worst power play in the league, fresh off a first-round upset. The question is, should that boost come in the form of a 28-year-old forward who has failed to play at a point-per-game pace over an entire season since 2013-14… when he’ll likely be expecting top dollar and term? Sadly, no.
Duchene has never been a power-play producer. Last season, he finished with 14 power-play points, which ranked No. 104 in the league. In 23 regular-season games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, he played 2:20 per game, tallying just two power-play points. As far as auditions ahead of free agency go, it could have gone smoother, in other words.
The lack of power-play production wasn’t limited to just last season, either. The highest he’s ever ranked in the league was No. 62 with 21 points on the man advantage in his rookie 2009-10 campaign. That was a decade ago.
Duchene vs. Subban
Of course, Duchene will be a boon to any offense in general, but you have to question the wisdom of general manager David Poile in this instance. He presumably moved P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils to make room for Duchene. All he’d be doing is replacing one huge cap hit with another, with a player who’s less productive on the power play.
Subban had just four less points (10) on an anemic power play as a defenseman last season. Subban has also scored 49 more power-play points over his career, which began the same season as Duchene’s. Any hypothetical tweaks to the Predators’ power play from a deployment standpoint would have been likelier to result in more production from Subban than they will from Duchene.
Granted, the emergence of Dante Fabbro on the right side kind of made Subban obsolete on the blue line. Plus, cap space had to be made to re-sign captain Roman Josi for 2020-21. Seeing as Subban was the biggest of the top four (Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm) with the biggest contract, he was the logical choice to go.
However, remember Subban has a $9 million cap hit. Duchene is expected to earn something similar. Also take note of the three seasons left in Subban’s deal. Duchene will likely be asking for a longer term than that.
By 2022, when Subban’s deal ends, the Predators will also have to re-sign Ekholm and Filip Forsberg. That would have been the time to move on from Subban, if the Preds so chose. They likely won’t have the option of walking away from Duchene then. Being one of the top free agents available this summer, he’ll get as much job security as he wants.
Alternatives to Duchene
With Joe Pavelski set to become a UFA too, he might end up being more of a worthwhile target than Duchene. At age 34, he’s still been more productive as a center and on the power play. He might also not command as much money or term than a Duchene, who’s still in his prime.
Another option might be 29-year-old forward Marcus Johansson, who, up until 2016-17 when he was still with the Washington Capitals, was an effective power-play contributor. There may be more of a risk associated with his game, due to injuries he’s sustained, but he wouldn’t command as much as a result.
Besides, since moving on from the Capitals, Johansson has still managed 44 points in 87 games for 0.51 points per game. It’s not as productive (or healthy) as Duchene, admittedly. Johansson at least has a chance of surprising. Duchene will likely only disappoint, especially as a result of the big contract he ends up signing.
Time will tell if the Subban trade was worth it. You do have to believe Poile knows what he’s doing. He’s a former winner of the NHL General Manager of the Year Award for the 2016-17 season for a reason, ironically on the strength of the acquisition of Subban.
However, the same reason that served as justification for Poile to move Subban, namely his huge cap hit, will inevitably come to define Duchene, if that’s the direction the Predators end up taking. They’ll only be taking a step backward if they sign him, though.