NEWARK, NJ — The sequence of events was so routine that it was hardly worth noting. During the Arizona Coyotes’ game against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, rookie Anthony Duclair drifted to his right, unseen, during the closing moments of a power play, a move so common that it literally happens 100 times in any hockey game.
Except what happened next was not so common.
Duclair quickly accelerated to his left, leaving Devils penalty killer Lee Stempniak behind. Center Max Domi then had all the time he needed to slip a pass through to his winger, who juked from his backhand to his forehand to score a highlight-reel goal past netminder Cory Schneider that was magnificent, and yet it looked effortless.
The Devils went from not seeing Duclair to seeing way too much of him for their liking, all in a split second.
“It was a good goal,” is how understated Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett described it.
Ironically, Duclair easily could have been a Devil. For that matter, he could’ve been a Flyer. Or a Capital. Or a Maple Leaf. Heck, every organization in the league had up to three cracks at landing the dynamic wing who is off to an impressive start only two years after teams thought so little of him that the Rangers were able to land him with the 80th pick, in the third round of the 2013 draft.
“I had a rough draft year,” Duclair says. “But I was 17 years old. Things happen. Now I’m just trying to establish myself.”
Duclair, now 20, was never given a full opportunity to establish himself with the Rangers. He briefly made the team in 2014-15, playing in 18 games and scoring one goal before being sent back to juniors. With the chance to acquire veteran defenseman Keith Yandle at the March 1 trade deadline and take a run at the Stanley Cup last spring, GM Glen Sather deemed Duclair expendable. That was good news for the Coyotes, who asked for him in the deal that also brought them defenseman John Moore, a 2016 lottery pick and a 2015 second-rounder.
“It was kind of a shock it happened so quickly,” Duclair says. “I hadn’t heard any rumors or anything.
“As time goes on, as you get older, you start to see how things are. You see how hockey’s a business. You learn different stuff and meet new people. I’m way more mature now than I was.”
And that’s the thing. While Duclair’s offensive skills appear to be as formidable as those of Steven Stamkos or Zach Parise—the two stars he is currently tied with in the goal scoring race, with five each—his defensive game has long been seen as lagging light years behind. His personality, even further behind.
Duclair’s problems started in his draft year while playing for the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts, when he was coached by the tempestuous Patrick Roy. The details of what went wrong between him and Roy during the 2012-13 season are a matter of controversy.
This is what we know:
• Duclair fell out of favor with head coach Todd Gill of Hockey Canada at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August, starting it as a headliner and finishing it on the bench.
• He was suspended by Roy for a game in January. Attitude and coach-ability issues were cited.
• A high-ankle sprain caused him to miss almost five weeks. The 50 points in 55 games that he finished with were a very respectable total, only 16 fewer than his previous campaign as a 16-year-old despite being sidelined for so long.
• The championship-favorite Remparts flamed out early in the playoffs, leading Roy to abandon his post and take over as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche a few weeks after the season.
• After Roy took over the Avs, the team selected Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick in the NHL draft that June and then skipped over Duclair in the later rounds with the 32nd (defenseman Chris Bigras) and 63rd (goalie Spencer Martin) picks. Although Duclair had been widely pegged as a potential first-rounder, other teams backed off while his former junior coach went out of his way to avoid taking him.
• Duclair was benched for a time last March because his new coach in Quebec felt he wasn’t trying hard enough.
It’s difficult to really say if Duclair ever had any serious issues and that all he did was make the unfortunate mistake of getting hurt and being an immature 17 year old. And for as much as we hear about the value of advanced stats, spreadsheets and sabermetrics as player evaluation tools, some old world thinking scared teams away despite what the good things they saw from him on the ice. The Coyotes, however, did a little extra homework and are being rewarded for their effort
“His coach in junior (after Roy joined the Avalanche) is an ex-player of mine, Philippe Boucher,” Tippett says. “We talked and [Boucher] said only good things.
“I haven’t seen any indications of those other (bad) things.
“I just know he’s a young player who has got some good speed and skill. He’s working hard to learn the rest of the game. There’s a few habits in his game that we have to keep working on to correct. There’s still a lot of room for growth in his game. But I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far.”
If Duclair keeps progressing, it's safe to say a lot of teams are not going to like what they see when he takes the ice against them.