Free Agent Profile: Matt Duchene

One of the top prizes on the soon-to-be-UFA market comes with some warning lights.

Matt Duchene is absolutely one of the best players headed to free agency — if he gets there. In the interest of full disclosure, we should note up front that Darren Dreger reported last week that Duchene has apparently discussed a potential extension with Columbus, though nothing appears imminent.

In fact, Dreger also said a couple days ago that, well, Duchene will soon be making Tyler Seguin levels of money, wherever that may be:

You’ve heard the potential destinations: Montreal, Tampa Bay, or (more than once) Nashville. And, much as I’d love seeing the Stars take yet another Predators target and turn it into a Dallas asset, we must now ask the question: would Matt Duchene be a good addition for the Stars, were he to make it to free agency?

Let’s just assume the number is around $9 million, give or take an M. That’s a serious chunk of change for what would be a second-line center, but given what we know about Dallas’s depth and what I would characterize as a relatively short remaining window of opportunity for the Benn/Seguin/Klingberg core, would Duchene be worth the salary cap space?

That’s a tricky question. Philosophically, I think the right answer about big UFAs like Duchene is usually “don’t bother.” We’re talking about over 10% of the cap on a player who has played primarily on bad teams for a while but still managed to put up practically a point per game in the last two seasons. Duchene has also hit 30 goals twice (this year and 2015-16), so it’s not like he’s incapable of creating points himself. He’s a centerman who can play 18+ minutes a night, though Columbus actually ratcheted him down to 16:48 per game in the playoffs this year.

On the other hand, Duchene is going to be 29 this year, which is the same age as, ahem, Jamie Benn last season (they’re about 1.5 years apart in age). And as Marc Dumont pointed out in his great piece that you should read here, Duchene is 59th in the NHL in points-per-60 at 5-on-5 over the last four seasons. That’s...well, it’s good. It would be amazing for the Stars, certainly, first-line material for sure. But again, you’re talking about a player who has done that, but who also has needed a lot of power play time to make that happen. Here’s what I’m saying:

Duchene’s shooting talent is fantastic. He can skate, and he’s not a massive defensive liability at all. However, he also doesn’t drive play much, as both Micah’s heatmaps up there and his raw (bad) and relative (mostly fine) CF% numbers also suggest.

That said, everything about this addition screams “overpay” to me, albeit not in the sense of Matt Beleskey or anything. Duchene is, I think, almost exactly what good teams would hope to have as a second-line center: someone who can score at top-caliber levels without having to carry a top line. The problem comes when the team is using top-line money to get that talent. Dallas is already staring at the idea of having a second-line winger making $9.5 million for the next six years. I’m not sure, even with the cap going up, that they’d be wise to throw seven more years of similar money at Matt Duchene.

So the question becomes kind of a more extreme version of the Mats Zuccarello discussion. Both players will assuredly be given some high-dollar years after their production has declined. Dallas simply has to ask themselves whether Duchene’s immediate impact will be the best they can buy with that cap space in order to make some serious runs over the next two or three years. Zuccarello is older and doesn’t score as many goals as Duchene, but he will also cost a few million less and might be more of a guarantee. Duchene might just choose Montreal because he always wanted to play there as a kid or something. Neither of these signings would be a “safe” bet in any sense, but there is a real chance that if Dallas waits to try to get Duchene, they could wind up with nothing. But that’s true of any big free agent, of course.

The killer for me is that Artemi Panarin is so much more clearly the sort of player Dallas should blow the bank on, even if there’s no chance (as far as we know) of his considering Dallas. Duchene, like Zuccarello, is a complementary piece, but absolutely a big one. His scoring has been inconsistent over the past few years (with a couple of trades in there, to be fair), so whether you get the 59-point version or the 70-point version is a bit up to you. But I do think it’s safe to say you’d see something similar to what Dallas saw from the Jason Spezza acquistion a few years ago, in that the player took less ice time and saw their production decrease a fair bit even before their decline phase really started. My worry with Duchene is that he’s not even at a Spezza level of contribution as it is; giving him second-line minutes might hit his point totals even harder. How would you like to pay $9 million for seven years in order to get 55 points? Because that’s what Duchene has averaged in his career per season, and you would be signing him to play primarily second-line minutes as he nears 30 years old. It’s hardly an optimal thing to spent that money on, but you have to overpay a bit when you’re as desperate for offense as Dallas is. Getting Duchene at any price would be undoubtedly better than hoping that secondary scoring magicks itself into existence in Jim Montgomery’s second year.

I suppose the problem with all of these high-profile UFA pieces is that you can make the argument against signing any of them, though. By definition, the best acquisitions for any team will be the young, cheap talent you can draft, if you’re good and lucky at doing so. Dallas hasn’t done enough of that to fill out their top six so far, and so here we are. The question isn’t whether Duchene would be an overpay; he absolutely will be, as would Zuccarello and even Panarin, eventually. The question is whether Duchene would be the best the Stars can do. For my money, he doesn’t seem like the best target among every player out there. But for Tom Gaglardi’s money, he certainly wouldn’t be bad, either. It just depends on your options, and very few people know exactly which players the Stars really have a shot at acquiring. These are human beings, after all. Who can fathom the minds of any people, let alone those of hockey players?

Given the Stars’ window, if Duchene is the best option that Dallas actually has a chance at acquiring, then I suppose they should do so. He would be much, much better than nothing, and Dallas needs something. But Duchene would be tripling down on every bit of the hopes they have for the growth of younger guys like Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson, and perhaps an even greater bet on the the health of their elite players to continue to do the heavy lifting. Duchene can carry some of that load, absolutely. But I’m not convinced he can steer the ship. But if there’s nothing better to spend $9 million on, then I suppose you have to shoot your shot. And Duchene’s got a pretty darn good one.