More than two weeks after the opening of free agency in the NHL, the Arizona Coyotes and winger Anthony Duclair seem to be close to completing a short-term contract that will see the right-wing forward return to the Valley for his third full season in Sedona red.
As AZCentral’s Sarah McLellan reported, the restricted free agent will likely and ink a two-year deal with the team.
But, even with an impending return to the organization appearing likely, Duclair’s role on the new-look Coyotes remains uncertain. The ex-Ranger’s unexpected fall from grace after a 20-goal rookie season coincided with a regression in the standings for the team and left his own future prospects in doubt.
However, with Radim Vrbata gone to Florida, and a lack of natural right-wingers on the roster, the door will be open for Duclair to regain his top-line pairing with Max Domi for the upcoming season.
Discovering which Anthony Duclair, the 20-goal 2015-16 version or the sent-down-to-Tucson 2016-17 one, will appear next year will be one of the more intriguing storylines surrounding the team when they gather for training camp in two months.
Until then, we tried to diagnose the issues that handicapped the scorer’s production last year, and evaluate the chances that the once highly-touted prospect can rediscover his top-line potential.
Scoring & Shooting Woes
Because of his demotion to the AHL for over a month last year, Duclair only appeared in 58 games for the Coyotes. His five goals in that amount of games prorates to seven goals in an 81 game campaign, the number of games he played in during his rookie season. That means Duclair saw his goal scoring and point scoring production drop by more than 50 percent.
The biggest difference between Duclair’s two seasons in Arizona has been his shooting. In his rookie year, the former third-round pick scored on 19 percent of his shots on goal, third best among qualified skaters in the entire league. Last year, that number tumbled by more than half, dropping to just 6.6 percent.
One theory to investigate was where Duclair’s shots were coming from: taking less shots from high scoring areas would have been an easy explanation for such a drastic drop-off.
In his 81 games in 2015-16, Duclair put up 80 SOGs from the slot (the area inside the faceoff dots and below the tops of the circles in the offensive zone), good for just less than one per game. Last year, in just 58 games played, Duclair still managed 53 SOGs from the slot, averaging to a slight less .9 slot SOGs per game.
While there was a slight decrease in these high-scoring opportunities, the 10 percent difference in slot SOGs doesn’t make up for the cut-in-half numbers he posted between the two years.
Instead, his finishing ability from close range took a nose dive. In his rookie year, Duclair scored on about 25 percent of his slot SOGs and 14 percent of his shot attempts from the area. Last year, he only managed to beat the goalie on 9 percent of his slot SOGs and just 5 percent of his total shot attempts from in front of the goal.
In the span of a year, Duclair went from being one of the most clinical finishers in the league to a player so wasteful with good chances that a demotion to the minor leagues was necessary.
Many will point to his removal from the Domi-Martin Hanzal line as a reason for his sharp statistical regression, but even without the two, Duclair was getting good looks from in front of the net. Many of the chances he buried two years ago, like the three he scored in his first career hat trick (video below), weren’t finding the back of the net last year.
Between his cold shooting and unfortunate changes to the roster, Duclair not only lost his position as the team’s top right-winger but also was no longer relied upon during the best goal-scoring minutes: the power-play.
The other biggest anomaly in Duclair’s numbers revolved around his power-play stats. In 2015-16, the rookie scored eight of his 20 goals on the man-advantage. Last year, however, Vrbata’s return to the club meant Duclair was knocked back in the special-teams pecking order. Instead of benefiting from the clever passing of Domi, Duclair was forced to partner with younger and less-talented players when his number was called for power-play duty.
Thanks to both personal and external dilemmas, Duclair was victimized by a perfect storm of bad-play and bad-luck, costing him a chance to build upon his fantastic debut season.
But, with Vrbata gone and a new contract on the way, Duclair will likely be given another chance to solidify himself as a top six forward. To his credit last year, he took his struggles well publicly, never showing signs of discontent toward the coaching staff or organization.
A year later, with the team giving him a chance to redeem himself, the remade Coyotes roster actually favors his chances of bouncing back to the top of the lineup.
Rather amazingly, Derek Stepan is the only rostered right-handed shot on the team. Prospects Christian Fischer and Nick Merkley also shoot from the right side but are both early in their development to becoming NHL players.
Only Time Will Tell
With only two seasons of data to go off of, it’s hard to judge which Anthony Duclair is the ‘real’ one and whether he can become a legitimate top-line threat for the team next season. Finding his scoring touch around the net will be a huge factor in his success, as will the makeup of the line newly-minted head coach Rick Tocchet places him on.
Tocchet worked magic in a similar situation in Pittsburgh, where he helped get Phil Kessel’s play back on track. A repeat effort with his new youthful winger in Arizona could be the key to ensuring Domi and Stepan have a quality third line-mate at the top of the depth chart.
The Coyotes have made it clear they want to play fast, score goals, and win games next year and beyond. Returning Anthony Duclair to a 20-goal scorer might be one of the most important and effective ways to blaze down that path.
Note: Stats for this story were collected from hockey-reference.com and from individual NHL game center shot trackers.