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Colorado Avalanche

The Wilke Weekly | The Avalanche and consequence of patience

RALEIGH, NC - FEBRUARY 17: Colorado Avalanche Center Matt Duchene (9) skates in warmups in a regular season NHL game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC Arena on February 17, 2017. Colorado defeated Carolina 2 - 1 in OT. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire)
Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire

Let’s talk for a second about press. Specifically, bad press.

The role of media in hockey is pretty straightforward. Most reporters cover games. They give people who couldn’t watch that night an accurate breakdown of what happened and why, usually gathering perspective from players and coaches to supplement the bird’s-eye coverage from the press box. Insiders break the news, keeping fans abreast of the latest rumors and rumblings. Columnists, like myself, write about hockey because we have opinions, insights and the narcissistic belief that others care to know about them.

Together, the beat reporters, the insiders and the columnists all have the power to influence the narrative of those who follow hockey. The key word here, though, is not influence. It’s narrative.

No matter what I might write in a column, it doesn’t actually change the product on the ice. But it can change the perception of what’s happening on the ice — or in the front office.

The Colorado Avalanche know a thing or two about bad press by now. Most of it, stemming from last season’s historically awful results, has been earned.

However, there is one pervasive narrative that seems to be entirely media driven: that general manager Joe Sakic is making a worse decision keeping Matt Duchene on the roster than if he traded him to the first team willing to pay anything of value.

Now I’m sure that no one is advocating that Duchene go to a team offering a seventh-round pick and a bag of pucks, but at this point a second-round pick and a lower-tier prospect wouldn’t be so bad, right?

Wrong.

The Avalanche are rebuilding. They have some good young pieces — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Sven Andrighetto, Tyson Jost, J.T. Compher — but outside of Duchene, they don’t have many assets they can flip to bring in more good, young pieces.

This reality means that trading Duchene will likely be the defining moment of Sakic’s career as a general manager. If he gets it right, the Avalanche will go from being a laughingstock to a team with a bright future. If he gets it wrong, he can kiss the corner office goodbye, and Colorado will remain mired in subpar status.

It does make for an awkward situation in the locker room, of course. Much of this criticism from the press came in the preseason, when Duchene was reticent to answer questions about his status. Many called it a distraction to the rest of the team, even more railed against the “unfair’ front office for keeping Duchene in limbo.

Look at it this way: The worst outcome of trading Duchene just to trade Duchene is ending up with a useless return. But the worst outcome of being patient is that Duchene stays on your team.

The same Matt Duchene who scored 30 goals in 2015-16.

Yes, it is a distraction. The whole team knows a trade is coming. New rumors pop up every day about which teams are in on a deal.

Yes, it is unfair. The mental strain on Duchene has to be tough.

But Duchene is a professional hockey player. He knows that his best shot redeeming himself, at shaking off the specter of that awful 2016-17 season, is keeping his head down and playing good hockey. If he lets himself get distracted by all the trade talk, if his game wavers, he also knows that he limits his options.

Right now, Duchene is epitomizing professional. Prior to the Avalanche’s home opener on Oct. 11, he had put up two points in three games (a goal and a primary assist). Per Corsica, he owned the Avalanche’s second-highest 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage, coming in at an impressive 58.9. The only person beating him out is Nail Yakupov, who plays on Duchene’s wing.

That’s the kind of performance that can change a game, and the Avalanche have indeed won two of those first three games. Now the underlying team stats aren’t fantastic, indicating that it’s unlikely Colorado continues the current hot streak. But they’re getting exactly what they needed from Duchene: proof that he’s valuable.

Letting this situation drag out for as long as it has does deserve some criticism. But if the consequence of patience is only a little bad press, and a lot better deal, well, I think Joe Sakic will be satisfied with that.

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