I’ll always remember Matt Duchene’s first NHL goal. It was in the third period against the Detroit Red Wings. Duchene sailed in on the near sideboards and beat Chris Osgood with a wrist shot. Duchene was an Avs fan growing up, and considering the Avs’ rivalry with the Red Wings, I can’t think of a better way to score your first NHL goal.
It took eight games for Duchene to score that goal his rookie year. Avs fans that whole time were just waiting for him to break out. When we did, we expected the 2009 third-overall pick to lead the Avalanche into their next great era.
Our last image of Duchene with the Avs was of him slipping off the ice after a forgotten shift. He packed his bag and headed for the border. He’s an Ottawa Senator now — a statesman. It was a trade we all knew had to happen, but still it was a gut punch of unfulfilled promise.
It’s strange how Duchene’s career with the Avalanche included so much controversy. In his second year, Joe Sacco benched Duchene for a perceived lack of effort. Patrick Roy ripped him for “over-celebrating” after scoring his 30th goal when the Avalanche team was falling apart two years ago.
To me, the feud with Ryan O’Reilly is the most ironic part of the Duchene era. Duchene’s first contract was definitely a team deal, while O’Reilly held out for what he felt he was worth. In the end, Duchene’s allegiance to the Avs eroded.
When Duchene found out that he was not untouchable in General Manager Joe Sakic’s eyes, his loyalty changed. Here’s my best guess of his thought process at the time: If the Avs were going to treat him as just an asset, why should he remain totally committed to them?
Duchene requested a trade almost a year ago. He burned a lot of bridges on the way out of town. He essentially gave the press the silent treatment. He constantly seemed ready to jump ship. His teammates, who felt like he gave up on them last year, were happy to see him leave. The end of the Duchene era is filled with much more relief than sadness.
Duchene will probably never have his number retired by the Avalanche. He probably was never the best forward on any Avalanche team. Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon overshadowed him at different times. He even fell behind O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog on occasion in the categories of work ethic and leadership.
When I think about the Matt Duchene era, I think about Craig Anderson carrying the Avalanche into the playoffs, of Peter Forsberg’s failed return to the Avs and the Valentine’s Day Massacre (Forsberg retired for the final time on February 14, 2011, and the Avs lost to Calgary 9-1 on the same day). I think of Landeskog and Stastny. I think about the Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov trades. I think of Roy as the fiery Avs coach. I think of MacKinnon’s rookie season and the outdoor hockey game.
Duchene fits in there somewhere, but he was never the focal point.
The fact that the Avalanche only made the playoffs twice in the eight seasons with Duchene is not his fault. The Avs’ near-term goal is to stop being one of the worst teams in the league, which is the main demarcation of Duchene’s years with the Avs.
The next era for the Colorado Avalanche will be defined by what they can do without Duchene. They have a core of dedicated players: Johnson, Landeskog, MacKinnon, Varlamov and Mikko Rantanen, surrounded by young talent.
In a lot of ways, this team resembles the group of players that moved to Denver from Quebec City in 1995. They are a young team with a lot to prove. The one person not on board was Duchene. No one who watched him celebrating that first NHL goal thought this is how he would exit the Avs.