Let's lay all the cards out on the table.
Anthony Duclair is a bit of a wunderkind. At the tender age of 19 years old he showed extraordinarily well at camp and forced his way onto the opening night roster. He has fans and major media outlets salivating over his potential. And justifiably so, really. He's, like, really good at hockey stuff. And he appears not to be significantly overmatched offensively if you take into account the normal acclimation of a rookie to the speed and (lack of) space in the NHL game. He has made NHL plays, in a small sample size, and while he needs to acclimate to finding space to unleash his above-average wrist and snap shots, he is looking like he will be an NHL caliber top 6 scoring forward sooner than later.
Here's the thing. Alain Vigneault has openly stated that he will not play Duclair if there isn't a spot for him in the top 9. He did acknowledge that Duclair made the team, but with the caveat that he will not play every game, but when he does play, he needs to be in the top 9.
Why so adamant about that designation, coach? There are a number of reasons for this, but most notable is AV's penchant for sheltering at least one of the top 3 forward lines from difficult zone starts and difficult competition. It's a valid coaching strategy if you happen to have the following:
1. A 4th line that can handle a majority of defensive zone starts and not get dump-trucked by difficult competition
2. A group of offensive forwards that will produce if given the premium opportunity to.
3. A depth of forwards to mix and match to achieve balance on the remaining scoring lines, as needed.
If you want to roll four lines, you have to make sure you can actually do so without sacrificing offense or creating scenarios that the opposition can take advantage of. To me, the number of the line is meaningless. The makeup of each, and deployment of each, varies slightly with personnel. "Top 9" is simply the designation AV uses to describe his "scoring lines." Whether you shelter the "first line" or give the tougher assignments to the "third line" or even "fourth line." Six of one, half a dozen of the other, really. It's all about deployment, matchups, even strength TOI and special teams. Call the lines whatever you want.
The point is that Duclair only fits if he plays on a scoring line, and probably a more sheltered one that will take advantage of his offensive prowess while minimizing his exposure to tougher even strength 200 foot assignments.
Mob: "So what? Get to the point. You said the point...so get to it. We like Duclair too. He's fast and sleek and has dangles for days. Shutup already or get to the point! "
Ok, here's the point:
Anthony Duclair is a winger. The other "top 9" designated wingers vying for 6 spots at this early stage of the season:
- Rick Nash
- Chris Kreider
- Martin St. Louis
- Mats Zuccarello
- Carl Hagelin
- Lee Stempniak
Not exactly bums. All capable offensively, some capable defensively. Additionally, as of the time of writing this article, AV does not have Duclair in the lineup against the Devils, making it two straight games in the press box. He was quoted today saying,
"In Anthony's case, if we send him back to junior we can't bring him up, so we don't have that leeway of sending him to Hartford ... I've got a pretty good grasp of our time frame with him. He's going to practice and we'll see [if he plays] the next game .[Saturday in Montreal]."
The part about time frame with him sure sounds like a suggestion that the time will be ending, eventually. Let's say, after he has played 10 games. But the first part of what he said also highlights the problem; once he is gone, he's gone until the junior season ends. So he could help in the playoffs down the road. But if there are injuries or depth scoring problems prior to then and he has been cast off to juniors, he cannot help.
This is an asset management issue as much as fielding the most competitive team.
First, I want to take this opportunity to correct a few common misunderstandings of the rules regarding aged 18 and 19 year old players. Don't worry, this stuff is miserable for me too, and I'm an attorney. We'll get through it together.
A team may use a "slide" to effectively delay the start of an Entry Level Contract (ELC) for a player who signs his first contract at 18 or 19 years old, provided his 20th birthday does not fall between September 16 and December 31 of the same year he signed his first contract. At one point, the prevailing thought was that as he is only 19 this season, if the Rangers sent him back to juniors they could once again delay the start of his 3 year ELC. However, as noted by Elliotte Friedman via Sportsnet.ca, Duclair signed his ELC on January 2nd, 2014, thus missing the December 31, 2013 cutoff to be considered "18" under the CBA. Section 9.2 states that age is determined in the CBA as follows player’s age on September 15 of the calendar year in which he signs an SPC, regardless of his actual age on the date he signs such SPC. Thus Duclair signed as a 19 year old and only maintained one "slide." The Rangers will burn a year of Duclair's ELC this season, whether he plays in the show, or goes back to his junior team.
The rule regarding the 9 game limit we hear bandied about applies to the start date of an ELC. If a player that is 18 or 19 plays more than 9 games with his club, a contract slide cannot be utilized. That is all. So that rule is irrelevant at this point.
However, per the CBA, if the junior aged player plays more than 10 NHL games, his contract can no longer be reserved while he is in juniors, should he be sent down eventually.
This all means that the Rangers can use Duclair for as many games as they would like. But if he plays more than 10 games, they cannot send him down in order to get relief from the 50 Standard Player Contract Limit. They have to send him down and take the contract limit hit. And they also can't call him back up until his junior season ends.
So it's a question of asset management weighed against whether he can help the Rangers now, for more than 10 games. If it turns out that they send him down after that point, they run the risk of reducing the total number of active and playable contracts. For a team up against the cap and the limit as it is, this could be of concern.
Revisiting the list of "top 9" wingers, a dearth of playable talent at any position is a positive. Being able to give tired legs a rest in a back-to-back (St. Louis?), mix and match for particular advantages against particular opponents, or plug and play when injuries arise, is of great benefit to a coach. I would imagine that AV is at least somewhat reluctant to cast away an asset that he cannot reinsert in a time of need. There was some uproar when Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller were reassigned to Hartford. But those two can come back and contribute at any point. Duclair cannot.
Duclair Helps This Team Right Now
Thus far in the extremely early going (small sample size blah blah blah...you get it), depth scoring has been a bit lacking. Rick Nash has 7 goals at an unsustainably high 31.8% shooting percentage. The rest of the top 9 wingers have combined for 5 goals in 6 games. Those 6 other wingers are shooting at a 7.25% clip. Which isn't horrible. It means they aren't all producing enough shots on net. I do fully expect that, based upon the historical performance of certain players, it will pick up.
As mentioned earlier, Duclair has only produced 6 shots in the 3 games he played. For a guy who is expected to be an offensive threat and, in particular, a scoring threat, this isn't sufficient. I think it's worth noting that even on his junior team, the Québec Remparts, he wasn't as much a volume shooter as he was an opportunistic one. Last season, he had 208 shots in 59 games, a shot rate of 3.53 per game, with a whopping 24% shooting percentage en route to his 50 goals. Now, this isn't all red flags as the QMJHL is a notoriously high scoring "offensive" league and top junior players in general benefit from inflated shooting percentages. But it is worth noting. He isn't necessarily a volume shooting type. But he also isn't afraid to let it rip.
That said, his skill set plays perfectly into the 1-2-2 forecheck as well as the rush shot type of offense that players like St. Louis, Krieder, Zuccarello, Brassard and Nash thrive on. The type of offense that the Rangers can and should excel at. Duclair receives the puck in traffic and on the move extremely well, and maintains top speed with the puck. His head is always up and, when he does get a bead on the net with space, he doesn't miss. Take a look:
Rush shots like the one above should be the bread and butter of dynamic and quick offensive teams. The Rangers can and should thrive on squeezing neutral zone ice in order to create turnovers before the opponent reaches their zone. Turning play in the direction of the opposition's net off of forced turnovers in the neutral zone puts opponents on their heels as they scramble to find defensive positioning. By doing so, lanes are opened, as seen above, and opportunities for shots and net-driving rebounds are plentiful.
Rush shots on average score more often than any other type of offense. (Note: I highly recommend you read David Johnson's blog and in particular his work on rush shots, starting with the linked introduction. Very enlightening.)
Speed kills, as it were. Especially with controlled zone entry and skilled offensive talents. Duclair's ability to drive the zone, receive and outlet, and pump quality shots at goalies backing in, is an absolutely lethal weapon just waiting to be unleashed. Don't believe me," watch him doing it over and over in the Q. (Note: french announcer loves calling him "Tooooony D!" I prefer the Duke, but hey, whatever works). He needs to utilize it consistently at the NHL level and teams will make every effort to cramp his space and ability to do so. But so long as the message to him is clearly to "do your thing," he will thrive. And he can do so right now. At worst, it's just one more headache for opponents facing a whirling dervish of an offensive attack.
On Nights When Duclair Plays, The Shut Down Line Can Prosper
It's pretty well established now that Tanner Glass is on the roster and playing NHL ice hockey games. People have...thoughts...about whether or not he should be. Let's just say that folks tend to lean one way more than the other.
Anthony Duclair is a solution. Hear me out.
The Rangers have an excellent option for shut down minutes in Carl Hagelin. Is he your prototypical fourth liner? Of course not. But if AV is serious about rolling four lines, and from what it looks like in EV TOI he mostly is, forget the designation as fourth line. Call it the shutdown line. And now, we have enough wingers to push out inferior talents that should not be in that role to begin with, and further spread the TOI to capable players who can matchup with tougher competition in predominantly defensive deployment.
Dominic Moore and Carl Hagelin, with a guy like Ryan Malone, can fill this role and eat minutes. They already do:
The chart above shows that as it is, Moore and Hagelin are asked to take on a majority of the even strength time on ice defensive deployment. Hagelin is more middle of the road right now in regard to his zone starts (ZS%), but he sees tougher quality of competition. It's been this way for most of his career, even with Tortorella.
By bumping him back on nights where Duclair plays, he can eat up similar minutes against tough competition and, in theory, free up the top 9 lines, and in particular the most sheltered "offensive" line, to do offense things. This would mean moving some of those scorers into the range of 80% OZS% deployment and, especially at home where they get last change, facing easier competition more often.
Good for the offense, and good for the defense. A longer and deeper lineup where offensive players get to focus on offense more often, and defensively responsible players like Hagelin and Moore get a very prominent and important shutdown role. One that they can presumably excel at, given historical context.
The Bottom Line
If Duclair's ELC is getting burned one way or the other, I value his presence on the Rangers more than I think it will either be a detriment to his development, or a problem of too much depth. Asset management aside, he can help now, given his skill set. Through his insertion into the lineup in a sheltered offensive role, you extend the offensive dynamic of the team, further spread EV TOI to keep players fresh, and strengthen the shut down line.
If he is sent down, it has to be before he plays his 11th game. The Rangers would be prudent to keep that 50th standard player contract opening available, especially given the contract status of certain players and the potential for a trade to add defensive or center depth.
Given that sheltering him will allow his NHL-ready strengths to shine while minimizing the learning curve in other areas of his game, I am not too worried about the Craig Button argument that young players are better served in juniors. If AV holds to form and let's him play 3 out of 5 games or so all season, he will reach somewhere in the vicinity of 50-60 games played total. Considering that this is about what he would get out of his junior season, it isn't about reps. It's about whether or not he can help the team and improve his game simultaneously.
The cards are on the table. Your move, Sather.