If you didn’t know anything about Matt Duchene before Jim Nill signed him to a one-year, $3 million deal during the offseason, you’d be hard-pressed to know where to start. Dallas will be the fifth destination for the 32-year-old Duchene following stints with Nashville, Columbus, Ottawa, and Colorado. So by definition, the Canadian is a journeyman. And yet he has eight more career points than Tyler Seguin: 744-736. How does a certified top-six pivot bounce from team to team and end up in the Stars’ lap for a cap hit lower than Dallas’ fourth-line center?
The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline has a theory. In 2016, then Colorado coach Patrick Roy called out Duchene for celebrating his 30th goal in a game the Avalanche were losing amid a lost season. Duchene was effectively called out for being selfish. I have my own thoughts about that situation, namely that bad coaches usually find ways to avert blame. Regardless, it’s probably why Duchene has donned so many jerseys despite being such a stable force on the ice.
Duchene’s history is worth mentioning because there’s no on-ice justification for his former teams to so readily part ways with him. That’s why so many respected outlets considered Nill’s move to sign him such a big win. EPRinkside ranked the Stars third among offseason winners, concluding they added nearly eight points in the standings based on their acquisitions and highlighting Duchene as the big reason why. The Athletic gave them the mathematical equivalent of a gold medal, highlighting Duchene as the big prize.
However, adding Duchene did come at a cost. I’m referring to Max Domi, who quickly became a favorite among Stars fans after Nill added him at the trade deadline. Not only did Domi turn into the secondary scoring threat that Dallas was missing for so many years, but also, who’s gonna forget the absolute filth on this pass? Or him going after Matt Dumba to retaliate for the hit on Joe Pavelski?
That, to me, is the real question. Are the Stars a truly better team, or simply a variation of their playoff roster that failed to be enough in 2023? Answering that starts with evaluating how much of an upgrade—if at all—Duchene is over Domi.
At first glance, Duchene both is and isn’t. Since 2020, he has scored 155 points, 39 more than Domi. That’s a pretty good gap. The problem with those numbers is they don’t reflect who Duchene has been for the bulk of his career. Even after his 43-goal season last year, Duchene has only averaged 22 goals per season. In terms of production rates, they’re functionally even. At even strength, Duchene has averaged 2.09 points per hour to Domi’s 2.03. In all situations, Duchene scores at a clip of 2.52 to Domi’s 2.33.
In other words, Duchene isn’t a massive upgrade over Domi. But only if that’s where our analysis ends.
What if we were to compare their last three years in terms of shift-to-shift impact on goals scored (GF/60), expected goals (xGF/60), shot attempts for (CF/60), expected goals against (xGA/60), and shot attempts allowed (CA/60)?
That’s exactly what a RAPM chart is, or Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus, and here’s how they compare.
Okay, that tells us Duchene is a massive upgrade over Domi.
Granted, both players still have their defensive warts. But Duchene is twice the offensive player Domi is in terms of how he helps generate team offense that’s rewarded (goals) and team offense that maintains territory (shot attempts).
One last thing: for all of Domi’s faults, conventional wisdom has always painted him as one of the game’s premier playmakers. Duchene, meanwhile, has always been a shooter first and foremost.
Is that true? Not really.
I was surprised by this, too. Over the last three years, Duchene has profiled like the dual threat that Domi is decidedly not. Duchene’s average passing score is .722, which is only marginally below Domi’s score of .778. Throw in that Duchene has scored 195 more goals than Domi, and the case is clear: Duchene is better than Domi, and that makes Dallas a better team.
There’s a catch, of course. Duchene is four years older, which isn’t a big deal on the surface. But what makes it a big deal is that Duchene will most likely start on a line with Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin, who have yet to forge the chemistry everyone hoped for. In more than 500 minutes together, they’ve been on the ice for 20 goals for and 26 goals against, and have been outchanced in high-danger attempts 115-105. Will Duchene, an older forward who can generate offense but who also allows a lot back, be the player who keeps the line together?
Possibly. But what if Pete DeBoer switches things up and moves Duchene to the Wyatt Johnston line? Who replaces Duchene next to Seguin? Evgenii Dadonov? The reason why Sean, Robert, and I have all articulated varying degrees of anxiety about the blue line is because of one uncomfortable question: if the Stars are nothing more than a slightly better version of their playoff roster, what exactly does that make them—a better team, or a better offensive team?
There’s a big difference.
Optimists will say that Dallas is a better team. They can point to how close the Stars were to beating Vegas in the Western Conference finals. If Ryan Suter doesn’t turn over the puck, if Jamie Benn doesn’t lose his cool, or if Jake Oettinger has just one more consistent night, then upgrading the Domi position with Duchene is significant.
Pessimists will counter that Dallas is merely a better offensive team and that its big upgrade is wrapped up in another aging veteran. They can point to how close the Stars were to losing the Seattle series if the defense had made a few more mistakes, or if they got hit by injuries like Seattle, which was without 40-goal scorer Jared McCann to start the series. In that case, upgrading the Domi position with Duchene is not as significant.
I realize it seems unfair to talk about the Stars’ blue line like a dark cloud always hovering over any discussion about their prospects as a contender. But it’s less about beating a dead horse and more about highlighting how close this team is not simply to being a contender, but also a potential favorite.
I tend to fall on the pessimistic side; I’m sorry, but you’d be hard-pressed to name a Stanley Cup winner with a blue line that looked like Dallas’. But I’ll admit that the addition of Duchene gives me more cause for optimism. He will be everything that Dallas’ secondary scoring needs. Being a journeyman is no pejorative in my book, either; Domi and Dadonov are journeymen, too. What remains to be seen is whether Duchene’s arrival is the perfect ending to his journey–and the Stars’ journey back to the Stanley Cup, too.