Ottawa Senators: Move or Keep Anthony Duclair?

Anthony Duclair has quickly ascended from bottom-six afterthought to NHL All-Star since arriving in Ottawa, in February 2019.

Duclair’s 2019-20 season was one to remember, with a career high in goals (23) and first all-star game appearance. After an impressive breakout campaign, the Senators must decide this off-season if the 24-year-old is to be a member of the up-and-coming core, or another piece to cash-in on.

It goes without saying that bringing in Duclair via trade was one of the smartest moves Pierre Dorion has made in his time as Ottawa Senators GM. The Quebec native was essentially a “throw-in” from Columbus, attached to two second round draft selections, in the trade that shipped out Ryan Dzingel from the Canadian capital. While Dzingel has faltered in the 18 months since the deal, Duclair has flourished, outscoring him 54 points to 29 points. On both paper and ice, Ottawa made out unbelievably with this trade.

While 2019-20 was full of positives for Anthony Duclair, it was definitely a tale of two seasons for the young forward. Of the 23 goals he scored on the year, 21 of them were scored before Christmas, including an unsustainable 11 goal tear during the month of December. Needless to say, nobody saw Duclair maintaining his December goal pace, however the complete drop-off was relatively concerning.

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Despite the drop-off, Duclair still had the 2nd highest even-strength offence GAR (Goals Above Replacement) of all Senators forwards this season, at 4.2. If his long-term future is in Ottawa, establishing a level of offensive consistency going forward will be key.

Duclair’s 17 assists this season were the 2nd highest total of his career. An encouraging trend with his passing is that 12 of his 17 assists were primary. Right now, he shoulders a heavy offensive burden, and clearly has a “shoot first” mindset. If the Senators were to have some more scoring depth, perhaps Duclair could transition into more of a playmaker.

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In particular, Duclair looked really good on lines with Brady Tkachuk, centred by Chris Tierney or Logan Brown. The Tierney trio posted an xG% (expected goals %) of 57.9, while the Brown trio had 61.4%, the best of all Senators lines with at least 90 minutes played. The ladder line should excite Senators fans, as the three players may have the chance to grow together, and play for many years to come.

While Duclair has proven to be a wonderful offensive player, it’s on the defensive side of the puck where he really struggles. His even-strength defence GAR was the worst amongst all Senators players this year, at -4.2. This essentially cancels out all offensive impact he had this year in terms of GAR. Duclair was also on the ice for the 4th most high danger chances against among Senators forwards.

These shortcomings in his own end are what cause his shot metrics, and fancier stats like GAR and WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to be a lot more middling than one would expect. If he was at least closer to a break-even defensive player, his on-ice value would be much higher.

Nobody is expecting Anthony Duclair to be shutting down top lines or anything of that sort, but his play off the puck is pretty concerning. People were excited to see him playing on the penalty-kill in the pre-season, but he quickly lost his spot, as his impact was minimal at best.

A lot of his defensive play potentially relates back to the aforementioned offensive burden he carries, as it likely is causing him to cheat a bit more in his own end to create more offence. It’s hard to know what his impacts would be on a better team than the Senators, but some of these trends can not simply be overlooked.

In terms of his contributions away from the ice, Ottawa should find plenty of reasons to keep him in the city. Duclair has become one of the leaders of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, working with the NHL to promote diversity, and put an end to systematic racism and intolerance at all levels of hockey. His willingness to be a part of this tough rebuild and young core has also been extremely evident since his arrival. Even at his young age, Anthony Duclair is clearly a fantastic ambassador for the Senators and the city of Ottawa.

Prior to the new year, signing Anthony Duclair to a long-term deal seemed like a slam-dunk. However, the Senators will wish to avoid making a mistake like they did with Colin White last summer, especially with news of the NHL’s salary cap staying put amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evolving Hockey has predicted Anthony Duclair’s next contract to be 2 years, with an AAV of $3, 351,000. Accounting for his midseason drop-off, and the state of the Ottawa Senators team, this seems like it would be very fair value for both parties if an agreement can be made. Given the player’s wild unpredictability, an increase in either term or money from that figure seems unwise for Ottawa.

On the other hand, Duclair does seem like a prime “pump and trade” chip. He’s unlikely to find as much ice-time in all situation with any other team in the league. His offence should gather attention, even though his defensive impact negates a lot of his work.

If the Senators do see anybody in their current system being ready to play significant minutes for them next year, then they should part with Duclair. AHL Belleville has a wide array of winger prospects seemingly ready to transition to the NHL. Whether or not any of them can replicate Duclair’s offensive impact remains to be seen, however the low fan expectations for next season do give the Senators some time to take a chance.

Either way, the Senators really can’t choose wrong in the decision to keep or move Anthony Duclair. If they choose to trade him, they should receive a fine package that will aid their rebuild. If they re-sign him, they can continue to work with a quality NHL talent, that may have even brighter days ahead of him.

All stats via NaturalStatTrick and Evolving Hockey.