Avs’ Duchene has Toews as Olympic inspiration

Ken Campbell
Duchene and Toews

CHICAGO – If Matt Duchene is looking for a template on how to approach his upcoming Olympic experience, he need not look far Tuesday night. In fact, right across the ice should suffice.

The Avs are playing against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, whose captain Jonathan Toews, started the Olympics in 2010 as the team’s 13th forward, but by the time the Canadians had the gold medals hanging around their necks, Toews had become one of the most vital organs on the team. Not only was Toews centering a line between Rick Nash and Mike Richards, but he was named the top forward in the tournament and was on the all-tournament team.

Duchene could find himself in much the same position at Toews was to start the tournament in Sochi. Most ghost rosters have Duchene as one of the extra forwards on the star-studded Canadian team. In fact, it’s believed Duchene was the last player put on the roster, ahead of Martin St-Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Duchene won his spot with his speed and ability to go to the net, which could prove valuable on the international-sized ice surface.

But just because Duchene is at or near the bottom of the depth chart now, doesn’t mean he’ll stay there. These tournaments have a funny way of unfolding sometimes. Toews is a perfect example. The Chicago Blackhawks captain was just 21 in Vancouver 2010 and Duchene turns 23 this Thursday. Another is Anthony Mantha, who started the 2014 World Juniors as the team’s 13th forward and developed into its most dangerous offensive weapon as the tournament progressed.

“I don’t know where I’m going to fit yet, but I’m definitely going to be prepared for anything,” Duchene said. “I know Jonny’s story and Jonny and I know each other pretty well. I haven’t talked to him about that yet, but I know the backstory. He was down on the depth chart and he ended being probably their best player. It’s pretty cool and I’d definitely like to follow in those footsteps, but more importantly win a gold medal.”

With a center corps that includes Sidney Crosby, Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron, it’s pretty likely Duchene will start the tournament on the wing, but again these things can unfold in unusual ways. Even if his only chance comes as a winger, Duchene has the speed and skill to beat defenders to the net and create offensive chances. Those attributes have certainly served him well in Colorado this season. Even though he has cooled off significantly of late – no goals in his past 11 games and just one assist to show for his past four games – he’s tied with Ryan O’Reilly for the team lead in goals with 16 and leads the team in assists with 23. Even with his offensive struggles of late, he’s still close to a point-per-game pace.

It’s the speed and drive to the net that impressed Canada’s management committee, as well as his drive to become better. In the past two years, Duchene has done everything from radically change his diet to his training regimen in order to get his game back on track. And it has worked. He tied P.A. Parenteau for the team lead in scoring last season and will likely lead the Avs in points this season as they continue their run to a playoff spot. Heading into Tuesday night’s game, the Avalanche holds down third place in the Central Division with a five-point lead over the Minnesota Wild and is a full 10 points in front of the Phoenix Coyotes for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The one game where Duchene might not excel so much is poker, largely because he has a tough time hiding his emotions. Duchene reacted with a laugh when he was told that members of the Canadian management team said Duchene was probably the most over-the-moon of all Canada’s players when he was told he had made the Olympic team last week.

“It’s funny it came off that way because I was really trying to hold it in check,” Duchene said. “I was thrilled. Next to getting drafted by the Avs, it was the biggest thing in my career. So I guess it’s OK to let things out there.”