Nashville revival: How Matt Duchene brought his game back to life this season
- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
Matt Duchene heard all the warnings.
Everything will change after you hit 30, they said. Even elite athletes can’t outrun Father Time.
Maybe not. But Duchene, at least, is making the man wait.
With his 31st birthday looming in January, the Nashville Predators’ star is enjoying a career revival. And it’s come not a moment too soon.
Since being drafted third overall by Colorado in 2009, Duchene had been an upper-echelon NHL scorer. Putting up 20-plus goals and 55-plus points each season was the standard. But since signing a seven-year, $56 million free agent contract with Nashville in July 2019, Duchene had produced just 19 goals and 55 points through 100 games leading into the 2021-22 campaign.
The Predators were expecting a difference-maker, and Duchene wasn’t delivering.
Amid those offensive struggles came last season’s lengthy injury absence, which tested Duchene physically and perhaps even more mentally. There were dark days then. And there were doubts. But never from him.
Duchene channeled his energy instead into a rebirth. On a line with Mikael Granlund and Filip Forsberg, Duchene has roared back to start this season with a team-leading 13 goals and 24 points in 24 games. That’s nearly half the goal total of his career-high (30) scored back in 2015-16 with Colorado.
Duchene was in his prime then, and he need not have worried such heights would be impossible reach again.
“I had a lot of people tell me when I hit 30, I would really notice a difference, so turning 30 was always my fear,” Duchene told ESPN recently. “And now that I am 30, it’s like, ‘okay, this isn’t a big deal.’ I do feel older in maturity and experience than I did at 18, but in terms of my love for the game and my passion? I still feel like it’s my first year in the league and I’m grateful for that. When things aren’t going well, obviously that gets tested. But this year, I’ve just felt great, and I can kind of see the forest for the trees.”
That wasn’t always the case. Duchene didn’t arrive in Nashville without bumps along the way, and it’s only lately that he’s addressed some of his own inner demons.
The Haliburton, Ontario native spent the bulk of his early career with the Avalanche and became increasingly frustrated over the team’s lack of postseason appearances (Colorado missed playoffs in all but two of Duchene’s first eight seasons). In December 2016, Duchene asked Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic for a trade. That came to fruition in November 2017 through a three-team swap that sent Duchene to Ottawa.
Duchene played well for the Senators, but they also failed to qualify for playoffs in 2018. As a pending unrestricted free agent the following season, Duchene was traded in February 2019 to Columbus. That summer, he linked up with the Predators on a long-term, big-money deal that naturally came with certain pressures. But try as he might, Duchene couldn’t find a rhythm in Music City.
“I just hadn’t really been able to get settled,” he says now. “Because you come into a new team, and then there’s a coaching change halfway through the year [from Peter Laviolette to John Hynes in January 2020], then COVID hits in March, then we have a COVID season last year, and I’m hurt [with a lower-body injury] for seven weeks. So, it’s just been a lot of different obstacles.”
The more Duchene struggled to perform, the worse he felt. Hockey had always been his haven, making his new reality especially nightmarish.
“When you have high expectations on you [externally], and you put even higher expectations on yourself, they can weigh on you,” he said. “Fans don’t really get to see that part and don’t understand that part, how this isn’t only our job, but it’s also the thing that we love to do the most. I mean, the average person probably doesn’t identify themselves as much with their occupation as we do, just because it’s been our whole life.
“Hockey is my first love, you know? Since I was two, three, four years old, that’s all I ever wanted to do. So, when you identify yourself as that and it doesn’t go well, it can really be hard on you.”
Duchene knew he had work to do, and not just on the ice. That’s when Vickie Woosley stepped into the spotlight.
The worst thing for an injured player is being apart from the team. The second worst might be all the time you have to think.
When Duchene got hurt in March, he didn’t want to waste time wallowing. So, he turned to Woosley, Nashville’s sports psychologist. After more than a decade in the NHL, Duchene could sense some issues he needed to “iron out,” and credits Woosley for making him feel more “solid and secure” than ever before.
“I think some of that mental stuff, it’s held me back,” Duchene said. “I won’t get into too much of it because I want to keep it obviously close to the chest, but I’ve had some stuff that I’ve recently figured out that was really holding me back. And at the end of the day, it wasn’t really anything I could control. I just had to identify it and go from there. Right now, I feel good. I feel like I’m doing what I’m expected to. But I know there’s more. I want to get to that next step, and I’ll chase that until I’m done playing.”
Some of what’s affected Duchene is how he and other top-tier players are perceived. Instead of being looked at in totality, an individual season will be broken down by production, and judgements are passed accordingly. The picture that paints on the outside hasn’t always been Duchene’s experience internally.
“I’ve had some seasons where a lot has gone on behind the scenes,” he said. “And unfortunately for me, all people look at are my numbers. Sometimes it’s a worse or better season than the numbers show. Or it doesn’t show the stuff that goes on behind the scenes that we have to deal with as pros and we’re just unfortunately evaluated on goals, assists and points as offensive players. I’ve always thought I’ve just scraped the surface of what I’m capable of in this league, and I’ve had fits and starts where I wasn’t where I want to be. But I’ve known that there’s more that I can get to.”
When Duchene returned from his injury in mid-April, he built up momentum going into Nashville’s first-round playoff series against Carolina. Duchene had one goal and three points in six games before the Predators fell, but he could feel the shift starting even then. What came next wasn’t going to be an ordinary offseason.
“Going from a year where I didn’t produce nearly what I wanted to, I knew I had two ways to go into last summer,” Duchene said. “I could either just say, ‘okay, we’ll see what happens’ and hope for the best, or I could really dig in mentally and say, ‘no, this isn’t good enough, this isn’t where I want to be.'”
Duchene chose the latter option. He reconvened immediately with long-time strength and conditioning coach Andy O’Brien and brought a renewed focus O’Brien hadn’t seen from his client before. And while they didn’t change anything about Duchene’s physical training, his mindset was on another plane.
“There was a level of detail around his questioning,” O’Brien said. “He was sending me videos so I could look at things, and we had deeper conversations about how he was doing everything, just to make sure it was perfect. I could definitely see an increase in his details, and that went hand-in-hand with his motivation. It can be pretty easy to anticipate when someone’s going to have a big year, because they are so ultra-aware of themselves. That drove Matt’s ability to get feedback and turn that feedback into some little understanding that he can then apply in his work.”
O’Brien knows the internal pressure Duchene places on himself to be great, and how mentally tough it can be to navigate. So, O’Brien appreciated the new perspective Duchene brought to the table, and he’s not surprised it’s having an impact.
“It’s almost like Matt’s normal [mode] is in a state of fight or flight,” O’Brien explained. “There’s always some stress that he’s under. But this summer he spent a lot more energy thinking about this upcoming season and a lot less energy focusing on the last. That really stood out for me and I think he just really had his sights set on making a big mark now. And that might have filtered out a few of the other thought patterns that can be distracting.”
To borrow a well-loved cliche, Duchene was dialed in like never before.
“I want to be here, and I believe my best years are ahead of me,” he said. “I don’t care if I’m 30 or 20 or 40, I’m going to push and push and push until I get to that level I want to be at. Success and failure aren’t final. My successes in my career weren’t final and my failures aren’t final. The only way failure is final is if you let it be final.”
The naysayers were wrong about Duchene going downhill after 30.
But he could have accepted more advice about evolving his stick through the years.
Duchene is an unabashed gear head, using his downtime to tinker with and test anything that might provide an edge, from a different flex on his stick to the way his skates are sharpened. But for all that open-mindedness, Duchene still refused to make one major adjustment. Until now.
“I lengthened my stick finally, from the start of last year until now. I added over three inches,” he said. “That was something I fought for a long time. I had some people close to me be like, ‘hey, you should try this.’ I was stubborn for a little while and didn’t really want to go away from what I knew.
“Finally, I said, ‘I’m going to do this right now.’ I added a couple inches on and noticed a difference right away, just being able to intercept pucks, poke pucks away and just have more leverage. And then I added another inch over the summer.”
Fast-forward to October, and that extra material immediately paid dividends on the scoresheet. The early returns highlighted for Duchene just how much the NHL has changed since he started out, and why adaptation is so crucial to longevity.
“I shortened my stick after my third year in the league,” he said. “You could really use your speed more and having the puck tighter in my body was more of an advantage. With how well everyone skates now, I’ve found that reach and leverage have really increased in value. With the longer stick, I don’t have to bend over as much. I can shoot more effortlessly and that’s resulted in more goals, and more goals [from] shooting. I don’t think I’ve ever scored as many goals as I have this year from just shooting as far out from the net as I have, just on shots.”
There’s data to support that. According to Stathletes, most of Duchene’s goals scored from 2016-17 to 2020-21 came from below the hashmarks. In 2019-20, Duchene tallied 7 of 13 goals (54%) from in tight and took 29% of his shots from the inner slot. Last season, he scored four of six goals (67%) from below the circles, with 33% of shot attempts from the slot.
This season, only four of Duchene’s first 13 goals (31%) came below the dots, and only 21% of his shots were from the inner slot.
If Duchene had pivoted sooner, maybe the last couple years would have gone more smoothly. Maybe not. Either way, the months after his return from injury were transformative for Duchene. He used the offseason to reflect on all aspects of his game and came back to Nashville knowing what to do next.
“I felt really good in the playoffs, like I was playing more free and loose,” he said. “So that was a building block for me. But the biggest thing was just to go home in the summer and not dwell on things. I’m a person who really analyzes and very often overanalyzes things in my career. I’ve done that too much and let some anxiety take me over at times. This summer what I did well was just leave everything where it was. Because I wasn’t sure what this year was going to look like in terms of how some things were left off last year.”
Duchene needed some answers. So he went straight to the source.
In the lead-up to training camp, Duchene sat down with Hynes for some focused one-on-one conversations. The goal was to “get things really figured out right from the start,” and Duchene believes it was the candidness of those meetings that led to his — and the team’s — strong start.
“I give those conversations all the credit, in that both sides were really willing to come together and make things work,” Duchene said. “We all wanted the same thing at the end of the day, and it just took a little bit of ironing out. We want to be a great team, and we want the best for me at the same time. Being the kind of player [I am] and to have an offensive role and be depended upon offensively, I had to get back to producing the way that I’m capable of. There was just some things we had to communicate on, and [Hynes] needed some things from me too.”
Duchene points at how his minutes are up this season (to 19 minutes on average per game, from averaging 16:31 the last two seasons), something that helps “big time” with Duchene getting the most out of himself. In return, Duchene heard from Hynes about changes the coach needed to see for the Predators to excel as a group.
“I just needed to understand exactly what was being asked of me,” Duchene said. “I was going out of my way trying to do something that maybe wasn’t even the focal point of what was being expected. That clarity really changed things and it was much simpler than I had thought before. It was all stuff I could easily do and was willing to do all along. On the flip side, I communicated to [Hynes] what I needed to be successful. There was always common denominators when things were going well and those are the things that I harped on. I think we’ve both held up our end of the bargain.”
Last month, Hynes appeared on Nashville’s 102.5 FM’s “Robby & Rexrode” show, and said the tete-a-tete with Duchene was about reinforcing the type of blue-collar work ethic with which he wants the Predators to play.
“The big thing is mindset,” Hynes said. “We talked this summer, and really talked about [how] he’s a talented player but you have to have certain work habits and competitiveness and consistency to your game to be able to earn the right to play big minutes.”
Clearly Duchene took Hynes’ messaging to heart. His linemate Granlund could tell something was different even before the season began.
“The way he was in training camp, just working hard, it was really good,” Granlund said. “It’s always tough if you don’t have a good season because you start pressing and you really want to try to do something out there and sometimes you just start to do too much and things are not going to go your way. it’s been really nice to see Dutchy scoring a lot and producing. He creates every single night and now, the way he works and battles, it’s been impressive and I’m really happy for him.”
Duchene repeats several times that what’s good for him (and other individual players) is ultimately good for the team. The Predators had an especially strong start, going 9-5-1 out of the gate before things leveled off of late amid some consistency issues. But even still, Nashville’s power play remains top-10 in the NHL and the Predators’ best players (including Duchene, Granlund and Roman Josi) have been playing like it.
“The conversations were respectful and we all just really got on the same page, and I know a lot of those conversations happened throughout our lineup,” Duchene said. “I think that’s been a difference-maker for our team. We’re producing more, our power play is a lot better, our top guys are living up to the type of players they can be, and that’s awesome to see. I know that all of us take a lot of pride in that and it’s really helped us get to where we are so far in the season.”
There’s one thing Duchene makes clear: This is just the beginning.
The NHL season is barely past its quarter mark. Dominant stretches will be forgotten if they simply extinguish into nothing.
No one knows this better than Duchene. And no one is more determined to keep the flame burning.
“I think right now there’s things in my game that I’ve never done before and I’m really pleased with that,” he said. “But I think there’s another level I can get to and probably another level after that. So that’s my goal, that’s where my drive is. My team needs that from me most importantly, and then I want that for myself.”
Given how this season is going, Duchene may also be playing his way onto Canada’s Olympic roster for the 2022 Games in Beijing. He previously won gold with Canada at the 2014 Games in Sochi, jumping into the lineup after a tournament-ending injury to John Tavares in the quarterfinals.
What matters most to Duchene though is the dream he has yet to accomplish, one that can only be realized on NHL ice. This may be the back half of his career, but Duchene sees no reason it can’t include his best chapters yet. And there’s an ending he still needs to be written.
“The ultimate goal and dream is winning the Stanley Cup, and the better I can be, the better chance I give my team to do that,” he said. “What’s good for the team is good for you and what’s good for you is good for the team. So that’s what I’m looking at. I’d love to be part of bringing a Stanley Cup to Nashville, and I won’t stop until someone tells me that I can’t do it anymore.”
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