Two months after deciding where his family would spend the next seven years, Matt Duchene hadn’t finished moving. In fairness, the logistics were somewhat complicated.
Consider: His stuff from Ottawa, where the slick-handed center started last season with the Senators, was being stored at his parents’ house in Haliburton, Ont. Another batch of belongings from his season-ending stint as a trade-deadline rental on the Columbus Blue Jackets had been stashed at his nearby summer cottage. Both loads had since been repacked and transported south, courtesy of a (very good, one figures) friend. The truckload from Denver, the first home of his NHL career from ‘09–17, however, was still en route.
“So,” Duchene said, letting out an exhausted sigh, “eventually it’s all getting to the same place.”
He will have ample time to get settled. Plenty other teams courted his services in free agency—chiefly his favorite childhood squad, the Canadiens—but Duchene wound up where many figured he would all along. After all, here is a guy who succinctly describes himself like this: “Outside of my faith and my family, my three things in life are hockey, fishing and country music.” It made too much head-slapping sense for him to sign anywhere else.
“On the personal side, Nashville is just us,” Duchene told SI.com earlier this month at the NHL/NHLPA player media tour. “That’s who I am, that’s who my wife is, that’s what our families both are … When it came down to it, our hearts were definitely in Nashville.”
Previous attempts to acquire Duchene via trade—first from Colorado, then Ottawa—had fallen short, but Predators general manager David Poile made his top priority clear upon trading defenseman P.K. Subban to the Devils at the draft. “So we were all in and we had most of, if not all of our eggs in one basket,” Poile says. The bold move shed enough cap space for Duchene, who ultimately agreed to a $56 million contract, matching fellow pivot Ryan Johansen for the team’s highest annual cap hit ($8 million) and forming a nasty one-two punch up the middle.
More than the country music and churches, Duchene was enticed by what Nashville offered on the ice. “First of all, it’s a team that’s going to be able to compete for a Stanley Cup for years,” he says. “I think everyone is pretty much either in their prime or entering their prime. It’s a heck of a group.” Even without Subban, the blue line is still loaded, each member of its top-four under age 30. And five straight playoff berths amid the thorny Central Division is nothing to scoff at, even if the Predators were bounced by Dallas in the first round last spring.
“I felt like if I didn’t take this opportunity,” Duchene said, “it’d be something I would look back on and maybe regret down the road.”
Poile had never met Duchene until the latter visited Nashville during the free agency interview period in late-June. But he knew enough to feel optimistic: That Duchene began taking regular vacations there after attending the 2016 All-Star Game at Bridgestone Arena, that he loved country, that he owned an investment property in the Music City. “I think we had a leg up on the Duchenes being interested,” the longtime executive says, but it was the coach who clinched it.
As Poile recalls, he and Duchene’s agents were pretty much relegated to spectators once Duchene was introduced to Peter Laviolette. Out of the several days that Duchene spent in town, the most frequent (and longest) meetings simply featured Laviolette and Duchene discussing hockey. “Our team philosophy, where he fit in, plays, systems, all these different things,” Poile says. One night, a coterie of Predators reps—including captain Roman Josi and wife Ellie—took the Duchenes to dinner at a swanky steakhouse inside the JW Marriott.
“I’m looking around about eight or nine of us, and there’s Matt and Peter off on the side, talking again,” Poile says. “It all played out really good.”
The same figures to be true once the first puck drops next month. Only two trios have logged more 5-on-5 ice time over the past three seasons than Nashville’s whipsaw top line of Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg. But Duchene should slot nicely below them on the second line, no matter which wingers he receives. And besides, last season’s 31st-ranked power play (12.9%) can’t get much worse. “We’ve had pretty good success the last few years,” Poile says. “All of the stats and analytics that I look at, most of the boxes get checked off. But we’re not where we want to be offensively. I think Matt Duchene gives us a chance to have the best [top] two lines offensively we’ve ever had here.”
No doubt Duchene is prepared for the pressure. As the centerpiece of the Blue Jackets’ all-in playoff push, he delivered three goals and four assists in their first-round sweep of top-seeded Tampa Bay. And though a visit to the French-Canadian pressure cooker that is Montreal gave him some pause in a positive way—“Obviously a great spot. Amazing hockey history. I’m a sucker for that stuff.”—it was the relaxed nature of Nashville that made the city such an ideal fit for himself, Ashley and baby son, Beau.
“You can live a very simple, country life and have some room to spread out,” he says. “Good spots to raise your family. And then people always point at the music thing for me, which is obviously a big passion.” Indeed, Duchene is already well connected in the industry, so making new friends shouldn’t be a problem. Not that he hasn’t already become wildly popular just by moving there. As Poile puts it, “Matt Duchene may know more people in Nashville than I do.”