Stan Bowman can be described as many things: Cunning, clever, ambitious, ruthless; Hell, even sometimes needlessly reckless. But if there’s two things Stan Bowman certainly is not, it’s predictable or boring. It’s almost as if the crafty Blackhawks General Manager anticipates the calm before donning his sorcerer’s hat and unleashing his storm. Just as you begin to suspect things have entered cruise control and all remains quiet on the western front, Stan pulls the strings on the hockey world almost purposely so that you’re caught off-guard, with your pants around your ankles wondering what in the world just happened. This pretty much describes how I and seemingly everyone in the Blackhawks-covering community were caught late, Wednesday afternoon.
Coming off the heels of what was perhaps his best game in months, a dominating 8-2 romp of the Ottawa Senators, Richard Panik was dealt to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Anthony Duclair. Also in the deal was former Blackhawks draftee Adam Clendening and prospect Laurent Dauphin, who was a return piece in last summer’s shocker that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona for Connor Murphy.
The timing of the deal is pretty felicitous considering just a little less than a week ago I found myself engaged in a conversation pertaining to the future of a certain Coyotes winger with an Glendale-area acquaintance of mine, who somehow has remained loyal to the Coyotes even after all these painstaking years. Anyhow, we settled upon the accordance that we didn’t think Duclair would ultimately be dealt – that somehow, someway, the Yotes would attempt to parlay and strike some sort of compromise with their young and gifted winger. After all, we agreed, it’s far too early to just give up a guy who scored 20 goals and recorded 44 points as a 20-year old rookie just two seasons earlier. We did also agree, that in the event Duclair was moved, it’d take at least a good prospect and a couple of draft picks, likely a second or third, to lure his tremendous upside from the desert – both concurring that it wouldn’t make much sense for the Coyotes, on the brink of what will surely be a significant deadline fire sale, to swap their once-prized prospect for anything less than future pieces to build upon.
Boy, were we wrong. Wrong in such such a spectacular way Luke Skywalker would monologue how wrong we were. It’s almost impressive because not only was Duclair moved, he was moved for the opposite of what rebuild-logic would dictate he should be dealt for. I really don’t understand the Coyotes’ train of thought there.
Furthering the irony is a Sportsnet Canada piece from Tuesday so fresh on my mind it has yet to be closed from the seemingly endless abyss of open internet tabs on my phone. [Hopefully] Prophetically titled “Why Anthony Duclair could be the hidden gem of the NHL trade market“, the article details through metrics and advanced analytics how the youngster can be a ticking offensive time bomb if placed into the right situation. Little did I know that mere hours after reading this piece the coveted youngster would be a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. But life is unpredictable, and the only thing more unpredictable than life is the NHL during deadline season.
Duclair, 22, a former third round draft pick of the Rangers, exploded onto the scene in 2014-2015 following an impressive preseason in New York and electric performance at the 2015 World Junior Championships as a member of Team Canada. Regarded as one of the NHL’s top prospects, he was the primary piece in the 2015 blockbuster deadline deal that sent veteran defenseman Keith Yandle from the Phoenix Coyotes to the New York Rangers.
Along with Max Domi and 2015, 3rd overall pick Dylan Strome, the 5’11, 196 pound Duclair was foreseen as one of the cornerstones of the future of the Coyotes organization. This conception was reinforced when Duclair posted a hat trick in only his third game in Arizona and capped off his first full NHL season with an impressive 20 goals, 24 assists and a stellar +12 rating – garnering he and linemate Max Domi the nickname “The Killer D’s” and the reputation of being one the league’s most prolific and lethal young duos.
But then the Arizona Coyotes happened.
Since, “The Duke” – a title bestowed upon Duclair by Coyotes fans, simply hasn’t been able to emulate the success he found as a rookie whilst playing for a series of overwhelmingly abysmal Arizona Coyotes teams. Duclair’s offensive productivity reduced drastically in 2016-2017 as the forward was only able to muster 15 points and a -7 rating in 58 games during a sophomore campaign that would even see him, at one point, demoted to the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League. The lowly Coyotes finishing the season with just 70 points and the NHL’s third lowest scoring offense didn’t provide Duclair or his skill set any favors.
This season has been equally unkind to Duclair, as the forward has often found himself subject to a series of healthy scratches, finger-pointing and lingering trade conjecture all while, yet again, finding himself hogtied to the bumper of the Western Conference’s worst hockey team. While Duclair’s struggles were an easy target for finger-pointers, the honest truth is that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could regularly produce in such an anemic, black hole situation.
Perhaps, though, Wednesday’s trade will serve as an emancipation of sorts for Duclair, who, in his brief NHL career, has yet to skate alongside a forward grouping as talented as the one he’ll encounter as a member of the Blackhawks. If there exists such a thing as a reset button in the NHL, this is it.
Caution is advised, though, as Duclair’s productivity will only go as far as the opportunity presented to him. Duclair is a scorer and viscous speedster who excels exclusively in offensive situations. His defensive shortcomings are what primarily landed him in Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet’s doghouse in the first place. And if you’ve watched any Blackhawks hockey at all over the past decade or so, you’ll understand exceedingly well that these are the same deficiencies that will earn a player a one-way ticket to the press box or AHL in a Joel Quenneville-mandated system.
To get the most out of Duclair, he first must be utilized properly. This means top-six opportunities. I mean, this is why you traded for him, right? You wouldn’t go out of your way to acquire a scoring winger only to bury him in checking role, I’d hope. Luckily for Duclair, who will wear the number 91 with the Blackhawks, there is a spotlighted, flashing-neon opening on the left wing of the surging Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane line.
How’s that for a fresh start? If there exists a more fortuitous opportunity in all of hockey, I’d like to know. Also, the mere thought of these three speedsters together is melting the United Center surface to such a boiling extent you can already see the refrigerant coils at the base of ice.
That said, if he gets his fair shot and proper ice time in a top-six role – especially alongside Kane – it won’t take long to determine Duclair’s fate with the Blackhawks, as the winger is set to hit restricted free agency in July.
At the end the day, there’s no lingering repercussions to this deal. It’s one of those rare, home run maneuvers that succeeds even if it fails. If the low-risk, high-reward Duclair experiment fails to take off and the winger fades into obscurity come summertime, then the deal simply becomes a much-needed salary dump, giving the Blackhawks not only close to $3 million in wiggle room at this year’s trade deadline, but also provides Bowman increased capital for the ensuing off season when such names as Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Jan Rutta, and Michal Kempny hit free agency.
In reality, the only dilemma I can see muddying the waters here is if Duclair, in Artemi Panarin-like fashion, catapults onto the scene and lights the world on fire, thus saving the Blackhawks season and subsequently forcing the off season narrative to center around him.
If you can even call that a dilemma.
As much as we all loved Dick Panik and his spontaneous far and few between moments of brilliance, his nearly $3 million cap hit this season was a grease stain on the financial books of the Blackhawks. In no organization should a forward making such a salary find himself a regular healthy scratch. Its as simple and as blunt as that.
Finally, lets all take a moment to serenade the Coyotes organization with thunderous applause for not only gifting the Blackhawks a player with loads of raw and untapped talent, but for also providing additional relief in the organization’s ongoing fight against cap space deprivation. Even at this conclusion of this piece, days after the dust has settled, I’m still wondering just where Coyotes General Manager John Chayka’s head was on this one.
Perhaps I’m overestimating Duclair’s value and there just wasn’t much of a market for the winger, after all.