“Makes you want to puke a little bit.”
Come on, Matt Duchene. Here it is, Wednesday, your 28th birthday, and you’re already joking about being an old man. A week earlier, your wife, Ashley, gave birth to your first child, a son the couple has named Beau. On this mid-week day in Ottawa, your Senators met your old team, the Colorado Avalanche, and you – Happy Birthday! – led the way with two goals and an assist in a surprising 5-2 victory for the home side.
Then, to top off this upchucking on Wednesday evening, TSN just listed you as the No. 1”Trade Bait” leading up to the NHL’s Feb. 25 trading deadline.
Oh yes, and far away in Los Angeles, the Senators’ general manager, Pierre Dorion, was meeting with your agent, Pat Brisson, to talk about a long-term multimillion-dollar contract that will set up your little family for life. That, or else send you off in a trade to grab an equal or better offer with a team that has a real chance of getting you that prize you so crave: a Stanley Cup ring. Stick a finger down your throat, for sure.
The game against the Avalanche over, Duchene cut the jokes and confessed that “this week has been the best week of my life.”
It did not go unnoticed that the victory came against the very team Duchene had abandoned less than 15 months earlier. He had grown up in Haliburton, Ont., worshipping the Colorado Avalanche and idolizing the team’s captain, Joe Sakic, yet now he had gone to his idol, Sakic having become the Colorado GM, and requested a trade to a team on the upswing.
That would be the Ottawa Senators, at that point early in their first season after coming within an overtime goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final.
“It will be amazing to be close to home,” Duchene told a Denver reporter the night he was dealt. “They’ve got a team that can win a Stanley Cup.”
Oh, the irony. … Shortly after Duchene’s arrival, the Senators went into freefall, finishing the 2017-18 season in 30th place. In some ways, the franchise was more disappointing off the ice than on, given the controversies and trades that followed, including the loss of team captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose.
To double up on the irony, the Avalanche began a climb that suggested they were returning to the formidable team they had once been in Sakic’s days. Despite a recent slide, the team is holding onto a playoff spot in the Western Conference. And a younger centre than Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, has turned into the superstar he had always been projected to become – ending up a finalist last season for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
MacKinnon, now 23, leads what is arguably the finest line in the league, with captain Gabriel Landeskog on one wing and Mikko Rantanen on the other, with Rantanen and MacKinnon currently in the top five of league scoring.
MacKinnon, who calls Duchene a good friend, says that his buddy did nothing wrong in requesting a trade. After eight years of frustration, he simply wanted a good chance at a Stanley Cup before it was too late for him.
That thought surely remains in play for Duchene, who is finishing off a deal that pays him US$6-million a year. He says he wants to stay in Ottawa; the Senators say they want to sign him to a new long-term deal; but this, of course, is public chatter. Duchene, a bright and guarded talker, let his opinions on one of the Senators coaching staff known – “I haven’t paid attention in three weeks” – during that infamous Uber ride video last fall. Even so, he has become a fan favourite in Ottawa with his speed and scoring ability, behind only Mark Stone in Senators scoring.
Duchene has long been a star player, but MacKinnon, the league’s No. 1 draft pick in 2013, was slow to rise to his predicted greatness. It has been said that his rise to become one of the league’s best players coincided roughly with Duchene’s departure.
“It wasn’t that,” MacKinnon protests. “I changed some things in my game, so it just happened that he got traded around that same time.”
The trade, however, had a ripple effect that is today affecting both Colorado and Ottawa in yet another ironic twist. It was a three-way deal that saw popular Senator centre Kyle Turris end up with the Nashville Predators, Duchene come to Ottawa and Ottawa hand back a package that included a first-round pick that Colorado will use this June in the entry draft.
With the Senators hanging around last place again this season, that first-round pick has become far, far more valuable than it appeared on the day of the trade. With 2019 seen as a solid-gold draft year, that pick could end up landing either American star Jack Hughes or Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, who scored the winning goal earlier this month as Finland took the 2019 World Junior Championship in Vancouver.
“The higher the better for us,” MacKinnon says. “We’d love to get Jack Hughes or Kakko. But we’re not counting on that. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want them to finish last … but we’re not counting on that.”
The Senators certainly have no desire to finish last. If they are truly in a rebuild, would they really rather give a very long and very expensive contract out to a player that will take him well into his thirties, or would they be wiser to cash his current value in and trade for prospects … perhaps even a first-round draft pick?
He is, after all, TSN’s No. 1 “Trade Bait.”
“It was a good deal for both sides,” MacKinnon believes.
Yet, in some ways, it is deal not yet completely done.