Have the Senators found the key to unlocking Anthony Duclair’s potential?

There have been glimmers of hope and moments of brilliance in the past, but Anthony Duclair is scoring like a legitimate top-six winger for the Senators and Ottawa may have found the secret to success with the 24-year-old.
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It was in the net even before Anthony Duclair connected. Stationed in the right-wing circle with Ottawa on the power play in overtime, the Senators winger opened up his stance and received a perfectly feathered pass right into his wheelhouse, and by the time Duclair let the one-timer fly, Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros was dead in the water. It was a goal-scorer’s goal, a picture-perfect blast, an unstoppable shot that was, indeed, not stopped. It was also the overtime winner, the second time in the past four games that Duclair had played hero for the Senators in extra time.

But the goal signified more than that for Duclair. For the 24-year-old, it was a milestone marker, his 20th of the season. More importantly, it saw Duclair match his previous career high. Not since his rookie season with the Arizona Coyotes in 2015-16 had he scored 20 goals, and that he has managed to hit the 20-goal plateau less than halfway through the campaign portends even bigger things for Duclair. He’s now on pace for an eye-popping 46 goals and 64 points, both of which would blow his current career-bests away.

Despite that, the mind can’t help but wonder whether what we’re seeing out of Duclair is the real deal or simply a mirage, the classic case of a player producing in the absence of pressure on a team that is most certainly not playoff bound.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Duclair has had moments where it has looked as though he was about to put it all together before. He surprised when he made the New York Rangers out of training camp, his aforementioned rookie season had some believing Duclair was primed to become a consistent top-six scorer and he even mustered respectable early-season totals in a past stop with the Blue Jackets. He had eight goals and 12 points in his first 19 games, but was dealt mid-season to the Senators after ultimately posting 11 goals and 19 points through 53 outings with Columbus.

However, after all the stops and starts – and he’s had plenty, as the Senators are his fifth team in six seasons – one can’t help but get the feeling he’s found something in Ottawa. And all the Senators seemingly had to do to bring this out of Duclair is provide him with the one thing he hadn’t had elsewhere: opportunity.

With no previous team had Duclair been more than a bottom-six skater. His career average ice times ranged from 14:22 to 12:09 with an overall average just shy of 13:30. But the limited ice time notwithstanding, Duclair had shown that when he was given quality minutes – and when he had the puck on his stick – he could do damage. And this season, he’s finally getting a legitimate shot to prove he can hang at the top of a lineup. Following Thursday’s victory, Duclair is averaging 16:36, and that includes more even-strength ice time and special teams minutes than he’s received anywhere else.

Entrusting Duclair with the additional ice time has paid dividends in a couple ways. First, yes, it’s been apparent on the scoresheet. His 20 goals and 28 points – Cy Young, anyone? The 12-point difference between Duclair's goal and assist totals is the largest spread in the NHL – are both team-high numbers. But it’s also allowed Duclair to showcase his greatest assets, his speed and shot, more often. On the penalty kill, he’s been a buzzsaw, netting the first shorthanded goal of his career. And with additional power play and even strength time, Duclair has had the chance to put more pucks on net.

It should come as no surprise the latter has resulted in an offensive outburst, either, particularly as Duclair has always been a natural scorer. Case in point: he’s a career 14.4 percent shooter since his rookie season. To put that into context, 261 players have registered at least 500 shots since the beginning of the 2015-16 season, and among those players, Duclair’s shooting success is tied with William Karlsson, Matt Duchene and Kyle Connor and not all that far behind Anders Lee, Sidney Crosby and Artemi Panarin. And with increased ice time, Duclair has been shooting more than ever.

Across the past four seasons, he’s mustered 1.5 shots and 2.7 attempts per game. This season, he’s doubled those numbers – 3.1 shots and 5.0 attempts per game – and has been a volume shooter. Underlying numbers indicate Duclair is firing 11.1 shots per 60 minutes, which far exceeds any of his past totals, and his expected goals per 60 rate has also increased significantly. His previous high, during his rookie season, was .85. He’s at 1.24 through 36 games this season. That’s a product of flourishing in coach D.J. Smith’s system. Duclair is averaging higher per 60 minute scoring chance and high-danger rates – 11.1 and 4.3, respectively – than ever before, totals that have filtered on down from Ottawa's high rates in both categories as a unit.

With all of that in mind, though, are we about to believe that Duclair has suddenly become an elite-level goal scorer? In spite of the evidence – he ranks third in goals per 60 minutes at five-a-side (1.81) and goals per hour at all strengths (2.01) – the jury is probably out. In fact, it will probably stay out despite the fact his 1.32 goals per 60 ranks 27th at all-strengths among the 764 players with 500-plus minutes over the past three seasons. That he’s shooting 18 percent thus far is also going to raise some eyebrows and lead to more questions. It’s worth noting, however, that he'd still have 16 goals even if he was shooting at his career-average rate.

But the million-dollar question – quite literally, too, as he’ll be a restricted free agent at season’s end – is whether Duclair can keep this up. And the truth is that we can’t yet know. What we do, however, is that he’ll seemingly be given every opportunity, and far more than he’s had anywhere else, to prove this is a true turning point in his career. If it is, then chalk one up for the Senators, who will have done what five organizations have failed to do: unlock Duclair’s potential and turn him into the high-caliber goal scorer he has long had the ability to become.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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