Isn’t it amazing how quickly a player can become old news? There was a time when Matt Duchene and Jeff Skinner were perhaps the most coveted youngsters in the all of fantasy hockey. Now they are still highly coveted but nowhere near as much as before. They no longer appear to have limitless upside. They have suddenly become capped – as though last season’s struggles have stripped them of their upside and their injuries have aged them well beyond their years.
For the record, Matt Duchene is 21 years old. Jeff Skinner, meanwhile, just turned 20 today. These are not worn out players. Their best years are still to come. I won’t sit here and blow smoke up your ass about 100-point upside but I’m also urging you to take last season’s results lightly. Consider it merely a blip on the radar. Maybe (hopefully) these playoffs have been enough to do so.
In case you have really forgotten let us quickly rehash. Duchene suffered both knee and ankle injuries finishing with 14 goals and 28 points in 58 games. Skinner, on the other hand, became one of the walking dead, battling a concussion that limited him to 20 goals and 44 points in 64 games. Got all that? Okay, now my friend Raffi will help you forget it.
It’s not that we should take an eraser to everything that happened last season. It becomes reasonably clear that while both Duchene and Skinner certainly had the skills to make the leap to the NHL they definitely did have the bodies. Do more injuries loom?
As far as Duchene is concerned, more of an off-season investment may be necessary before he truly has the body to match his endless skill. This is not to say I have any clue what Duchene is up to in the off-season but suffice to say I don’t think he is working as hard as some of his peers such as Skinner.
Skinner has spent his off-seasons working with Gary Roberts so you know he is doing his best to extract the most out of his miniscule frame. The problem is that his injury was a concussion. No amount of training is going to prevent or improve that situation. As Crosby (and many others) has proven, no one is immune to concussions so consider Skinner on zombie watch.
Another take away from this season is the growing rift between Duchene and Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco. In previous years Sacco was content to let Duchene skate freely. It worked to some extent so there was no point fighting it. Last season however, Sacco really attempted to rein in Duchene and the rest of the Avalanche. This did not work out so well for Duchene who saw his ice time dwindle by seasons end.
Overall Duchene’s ice time this season was reasonable as he average 16:18 minutes per game with 2:24 coming on the power play but things really collapsed in the final quarter of the season. Over the final 18 games of the year Duchene received just 14:10 per game with 1:41 on the power play and he was often demoted to the third or fourth line.
Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the Avalanche were in the midst of a playoff race and that Duchene, while back in the lineup, was still hobbled by his leg injuries but it still leaves you wondering whether or not Duchene can coexist with Sacco.
Even bigger still is the question of Duchene’s position. Is he better off as a winger or as a centerman? Duchene was drafted as a center and logic dictates that you would be best off with someone as skilled as Duchene with the puck on his stick in the middle of the ice as much as possible but he often found himself playing on the wing this past season. Not that poolies are complaining about the wing eligibility. They just wish he would produce.
The truth is that skating on the wing may ultimately be the best place for him. The Avalanche need wingers and have a well-established 1-2-punch in Stastny and O’Reilly up the middle. With Duchene seemingly the odd man out it makes sense to use him as a winger thus keeping as much skill as possible in the top six. It also makes sense for Sacco to shelter Duchene from the defensive responsibilities of playing center when he clearly has struggled with that aspect of the game. Furthermore, Duchene can use his speed to create problems for the opposing team by driving wide or getting in quickly on the forecheck.
The positional dilemma is obviously one poolies need resolved because positional eligibility hangs in the balance but what is really important is that Duchene gets back to playing big minutes. Maybe the Avalanche trade Stastny this summer and move Duchene back to center full time but whatever the solution we should expect to see Duchene being used to his full potential.
One thing that is certain is that Sacco has Duchene’s best interests at heart. Not until the end of the season did Sacco start cutting Duchene’s minutes and that was when the team desperately needed to win to make the playoffs. Sacco has always given Duchene some of the easiest minutes on the team giving him both favourable zone starts (over 57% in the offensive zone this past season) and favourable line match ups. It’s how you maximize your offensive talent. Duchene simply needs to better capitalize on the opportunities he is being given, much like he did in his first two seasons.
We know that the O’Reilly-Landeskog line is going to skate all of the tough minutes for the Avalanche so there is little reason to expect Duchene won’t continue to receive the cushy minutes. So really for Duchene it is a question of whether or not he gets himself fully recovered and ready to go for next season.
The Avalanche have a very strong system and a reasonable amount of cap space this summer. I suspect that as a team they will make big strides for next season. New acquisitions Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn both add an element of grit but also depth scoring that makes the Avalanche highly intriguing as a team. Duchene should receive enough quality minutes to be productive and his teammates are strong enough that he should flourish. The Avalanche were also a top 10 team in terms of power play productive so there really is not much to complain about for Duchene.
It is true that Duchene is an RFA this summer but that is barely mentionable. You can almost guarantee he will be back with the Avalanche. All that matters is that he gets healthy and comes to camp ready to play. If he does he could easily lead the Avalanche in scoring. Whether or not that means 65 points or 80 points really depends on what changes the NHL makes to go along with the new CBA but what is certain is I am expecting Duchene to rebound strong.
As for Skinner, well he will unquestionably be back in Carolina next season. He has one year remaining on his entry level deal and frankly I have played up how poor a season he had last season for the purposes of this article. He wasn’t actually that bad. It was just disappointing to see him struggle after winning the Calder Trophy. We all expect linear progression and it is maddening when we don’t receive it.
Skinner, like Duchene, receives very sheltered minutes. Sure he averaged 18:37 last season with 3:22 coming on the power play but they were also fairly easy minutes as Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter were given the tough match ups and zone starts. Skinner received over 55% offensive zone starts with some of the weakest match ups on the team. Again, it is just smart coaching. You shield your most skilled players from the tough minutes and put them in the best position to succeed.
Consider this a good excuse to be excited about a rebound from Skinner.
The problem for Skinner is not talent, nor is it minutes however, it is his supporting cast. We know the Hurricanes can put together a reasonable power play unit with Skinner, Staal and one of Tuomo Ruutu or Jussi Jokinen up front along with Jamie McBain and Justin Faulk on the back end but those guys managed just the 20th ranked power play in the league. You could argue that Skinner’s absence for part of this season was a part of that but the Hurricanes were even worse the year before. The fact is the Hurricanes have not had a truly strong power play in many years. Perhaps a full training camp with head coach Kirk Muller will help improve things. As could improvements from Skinner and Faulk but I am not so optimistic on that front.
The Hurricanes are also running on an internal salary cap so while one might assume because of all the cap space they have that the Hurricanes will be looking to make some big moves this offseason it is actually not very likely. Instead, we may in fact see a greater tightening of GM Jim Rutherford’s purse strings due to the failure of last summer’s big offseason acquisition, Tomas Kaberle.
I am looking for Skinner to bounce back because of health but also because of flat out improvement on his part. Despite missing 18 games, Skinner still almost shot as many as he did in his full rookie season. That shows big strides. He may not be able to match the 14.4 shooting percentage he boasted during his rookie season but if he can manage to fire the 270 shots he was on pace to shoot this past season then he won’t need to score at quite as high a rate. There is also the fact that Skinner simply is a high percentage shooter so even with high volume he will still maintain a strong shooting percentage. I am confident in a rebound to the 30-goal plateau. As for total points, the Hurricanes as a team need to resolve that issue. It was a down year for virtually everyone on the Hurricanes (buy low alert!) so perhaps there is a bounce back across the board that pushes Skinner up to 40 assists and thus 70 points but I would err on the side of caution and instead anticipate something closer to 30 assists. That means Skinner merely bounces back.
The big thing to consider here is that Skinner’s role is virtually guaranteed. We know he is going to get big minutes in Carolina and those minutes will more than likely be bigger than what Duchene receives in Colorado. If we consider the injury risk for these two the same then we would also have to concede that Skinner is the safer bet. 82 games of Skinner cannot possibly yield fewer than 25 goals and 55 points but I also think he has less upward mobility. Skinner is not going to start skating over 20 minutes per game and the Hurricanes are not going to morph into an offensive juggernaut. Or at least not next season.
So if you want a boomier but bustier pick then I think Duchene is the pick. He cannot be relied upon to bring either the level of play necessary to continue receiving big minutes, nor does he have the same goal scoring skill that guarantees you points. At the same time if he does bring up his level of play he could increase his ice time. He also has the skill and teammates such that he can score at a level higher than Skinner.
So for next season you can certainly debate whether or not you think Duchene has what it takes to earn big minutes under Sacco. Personally, I like the fact that it is his fourth year and I also like that there is now more pressure than ever to succeed but I am still banking on the safety net in Skinner. His hockey sense is just too sharp. I see too much determination and pure understanding of the game coming from him. His situation is not the best and if you want to gamble in a one-year league I think Duchene makes sense. In the long term I just prefer Skinner. Their individual situations could change drastically and long term I am finding myself favouring hockey sense above all. It isn’t that Duchene doesn’t have it but rather that Skinner has untouchable amounts.