Saturday, March 16, 2019

Anthony Duclair Autographed Card

To many, Anthony Duclair is a mystery inside a riddle inside a maze that is lost somewhere in the vast confines of space. That's because he's a talented winger with all the tools needed to make an impact in today's NHL: tremendous speed, agile hands, a good shot and youth, as he's still just 23 years old.

But he doesn't backcheck hard enough and will make defensive mistakes (like Thomas Vanek still does at age 35, or more fittingly, like 27-year-old Evander Kane used to do, as he's closer to Duclair generationally). Or, as John Tortorella put it in late February, in his hometown of Montréal, with his parents watching the press conference on TV:
Duclair had many options to sign this summer, including a couple of two-year deals, and a two-way contract to play in his hometown (or more likely, a stint with the Montréal Canadiens' farm team, the Laval Rocket under Joël Bouchard's tutelage). Instead, he chose the Columbus Blue Jackets' one-year offer close to league minimum specifically to play under Tortorella, saying:
Before signing here, I talked to a bunch of guys that played for Torts and all I heard were good things. They all said he takes your game to another level and that's what I need, especially at this time in my career. You hear and you see all those interviews on YouTube, and all those rants, it's because he cares. He cares about his players. The main thing I heard is, "If you work hard for him, he'll battle for you."
My agent is Philippe Lecavalier, and his brother is [Vincent Lecavalier]. I talked to him a lot, about what happened in Tampa, when [Tortorella] came in and took the "C" away from him. We talked about what he went through. Then he told me it would be a good fit for me to play for him. It definitely opened my eyes, and it definitely was a no-brainer coming from a guy like that. (...)
If he calls me out, I don't take anything personal. He's just trying to make me a better player. He talks to me privately as well, he doesn't keep anything secret; if he has something to say, he says it, and as a player, you respect that a lot. Some coaches keep it to themselves and you don't get an explanation. He's going to give you that explanation every time. I like the challenge.
As usual, it's one thing to heed the warning, it's another to experience it firsthand. Torts is right in saying The Duke's got all the tools, and it isn't easy for a guy like Duclair, who was a goal-per-game regular-season producer and point-per-game postseason player on a Memorial Cup-caliber Québec Remparts team in Juniors, at point-per-game player on a gold-winning Team Canada club at the World Juniors and a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, to suddenly hear he doesn't know how to play the game, to be forced to play like old teammates of his who were never drafted, to not create plays out of nothing.

But that's the dilemma in the NHL. There are precious few who do not need to play defensively and can get their 50-60 points, but the vast majority of players need to play a perfect two-way game of chess to get middle-of-the-road stats (15-point guys turn in 25-point performances that way, and point-per-game AHLers get their 40-50 NHL points that way too). It evens the game down the middle, with creative plays fewer and further between - but they're still there at times, just once per week instead of once or twice per game; that means players can get a chance to win it for their team that once a week instead of tethering the edge of costing a game per week for their team.

That lesson is what turned Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban into the best of their profession (although some still make the case that Subban remains risky a few times per year), and that's what separates that elite class from the decent-to-very-good, which holds the likes of Vanek, Ron Hainey in his prime, Morgan Rielly and Mike Reilly at the moment, and many more.

On the other hand, playing within the system is what makes late-round draft picks like Brendan Gallagher and projected spare forwards like Paul Byron into sure-fire 30- and 20-goal scorers.

NHL forwards are considered in their prime from ages 25 to 32; at 25, they're still in the shape they were in at 22, but stronger, and have started to use their experience to their advantage; from 30 to 32 is a stasis, where experience, health and nutrition help keep their production leveled, and after that, the toll on their bodies start showing, they slow down and must rely on their Hockey IQ more and more. Players like Duclair have more "innate hockey reflexes" (pure skill) than "Hockey IQ" (positioning and tactics), but all is not lost for him yet. The colour of his skin may mean a handful of teams in the U.S. might be more hesitant to give him a chance (I really hate to say this, but the past couple of years have shown that racism is not a thing of the past, unfortunately, even if hockey as a sport doesn't come with inherent biases against individuals - at least in my lifetime, it was probably different in Willie O'Ree's day), but he will probably be allowed another, final mulligan in North America before having to resort to playing in Europe if things once again turn sour between now and the end of April.

I just hope it doesn't have to get to that, and that he can find a permanent place within the Ottawa Senators organization. They need each other - but they need the best of what each has to offer, not the noise.

Here he is in happier times, as a member of the New York Rangers, when his future was at its most promising, Manhattan having already given him the nickname "The Duke", his spectacular play already winning the hearts of the team's fans:
That's card #U41 from Upper Deck's 2014-15 O-Pee-Chee Update collection and Marquee Rookie sub-set. I actually bought the unsigned card on Ebay then had him sign it in blue sharpie years later.

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