We’re just a few hours away from Anthony Duclair’s debut with the Blackhawks. The former top prospect who was acquired the day before from the Coyotes will be on the third line with the Jets in town Friday night.
Duclair’s acquisition in a four-player trade with the Coyotes was the Blackhawks’ first major outside addition of the season. There had been lots of line changes and a few trips between Rockford and Chicago, but Duclair was GM Stan Bowman’s first stab at adding reinforcements to help ensure a trip to the postseason.
You already know what the deal cost, and what I generally think of it. Richard Panik can be a good depth winger but he’s struggled this season, lost his spot to Vinnie Hinostroza, and is owed $2.8 million next season. The Blackhawks did well to trade him for a low-risk, high-reward young talent who could carve out a long-term role with the franchise.
But going beyond the trade itself, let’s take a look at how Duclair got here and what his addition potentially means for the Blackhawks this season.
What happened in Arizona?
Duclair burst onto the scene as a Rangers prospect at the 2015 World Juniors, where he recorded eight points in seven games for a gold medal-winning Canada team. With his stock boosted, New York cashed in by trading him in a deal to acquire Keith Yandle from the Coyotes before the 2015 trade deadline.
The next season, Duclair broke out as a rookie in Arizona with 20 goals and 24 assists in 81 games. He was receiving the favorable assignments you’d expect from a young winger, but he took advantage to finish third among Coyotes in goals and fourth in points. His 5-on-5 on-ice goal differential was an exceptional plus-18 on a bad team.
But the bottom fell the following season as he recorded just 15 points in 58 games. The Coyotes send him back to the AHL for a spell, and he wasn’t much better there with eight points in 16 games.
Duclair bounced back a bit this season with 15 points in 30 games, but it was clear he was ready to move on. The forward requested a trade out of Arizona earlier this season because, as he discussed with reporters Friday, he felt he “deserved a little bit better” as a player. Now it’ll be on him to live up to his end of the bargain.
What does he bring to the table?
Duclair has the offensive potential to be the missing top-six piece the Blackhawks have been searching for. He’s a good skater who can be dynamic with the puck and make dazzling individual plays.
During his breakout 2015-16 season, he averaged 2.03 points per hour, according to Corsica. Even on a good offensive team like the Hawks, that would be a close fifth behind Hinostroza, Patrick Kane, Ryan Hartman, and Nick Schmaltz. And in Arizona, his top linemates were Martin Hanzal, Tobias Rieder, and Max Domi. He’ll start in Chicago with Kampf and DeBrincat, but teaming up with Kane could have a major effect.
The problem with Duclair’s game is that he’s not as strong when the puck isn’t on his stick, and hasn’t made a ton of progress there in recent years. “He’s poor defensively, not going to win many battles, and for his offensive gifts his impact hasn’t been as expected,” The Athletic’s Corey Pronman said of him.
So it’s a matter of how he’s producing, and whether that’s enough for the Blackhawks to be willing to live with his mistakes. If he’s playing like he did in 2015-16, then the answer will be a resounding yes. If it’s closer to what he did last season, then his time in Chicago may not be much different than it was in Arizona.
Where does he fit?
There are two reasons that this is a particularly tricky problem. First, we haven’t seen Duclair in a Hawks uniform yet. Second, no matter where he settles in, the return of Artem Anisimov could throw a wrench into things.
Starting on the third line with Kampf and DeBrincat makes a good deal of sense. It should be a line with a lot of speed, and Kampf has shown some ability to win puck battles and keep play alive. The Hartman-Schmaltz-Kane line has had some great moments, too, so no need to split it up now.
In an ideal world, Duclair plays so well he emerges on the second line. Few players in the league get more favorable zone start distribution than Kane. Giving Duclair that kind of offensive-minded role with one of the best playmakers in the world could be perfect for his style of play and his confidence.
But it’s equally possible he stays in the bottom six to provide offensive punch while Hartman or Anisimov plays in the top six.
Either way, this team has more depth than ever this season. Here’s a potential lineup for the playoffs:
Obviously there are lots of possible permutations, but Duclair’s addition (plus the eventual signing of Dylan Sikura) could be the reinforcements that allow Bowman to avoid going overboard on the pre-deadline trade market.
Will this work?
It’s hard to say. Duclair followed up that good debut with a really disappointing sophomore season. He wasn’t necessarily in an environment conducive to success, but part of that responsibility is still on him. It’s not like his minutes were being cut for no reason.
What’s undeniable is that he’s talented, and the Blackhawks don’t have much to lose. He’s making $1.2 million this year and will be an RFA in the summer. They don’t have much skin in this game beyond their interest in having Duclair maximize his potential for everyone’s sake. And considering he’s just 22, there’s a real chance a change of scenery will do the trick.