The 24-year-old forward’s objectives weren’t that lofty, but they were more important.
Entering his sixth NHL season, Duclair, who played on four teams — the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Senators — the previous two seasons, was focused was on establishing himself as an everyday player.
“It wasn’t in my plans or goals at the beginning of the year,” Duclair said of being named an all-star for the first time. “It was honestly just to be in the lineup every game and stay consistent. So for it to come this far and to get recognized by the League and everybody was a huge honor for me.”
After being acquired by Ottawa in a trade with Columbus on Feb. 23, 2019, Duclair had 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 21 games to finish with 33 (19 goals, 14 assists) on the season, the most since he had an NHL career-high 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists) with Arizona in 2015-16, his first full season in the NHL.
Duclair has built off that strong finish, leading the Senators in goals (21) and points (33) in 47 games this season, and appears to have found a home in Ottawa.
“I think he’s at that point where he feels comfortable,” Senators coach D.J. Smith said. “Teammates respect him, he enjoys coming to the rink, and he’s allowed to just play hockey and he’s been great. In saying that, it’s taken him a lot of time to get to this.
“I’m sure he would say he’s made a lot of mistakes along the way.”
With Duclair’s speed and finishing ability, there was never a question about whether he had the skills to play in the NHL. The New York Rangers, who selected him in the third round (No. 80) of the 2013 NHL Draft, thought highly enough of him to give him an 18-game stint as a 19-year-old in 2014-15.
However, coaches Dave Tippett and Rick Tocchet questioned his work ethic during his three seasons in Arizona, which acquired him in a trade with New York on March 1, 2015, and he was a healthy scratch 10 times in 2017-18 before being traded to the Blackhawks on Jan. 10, 2018.
The Pointe-Claire, Quebec, native went through a similar situation with the Blackhawks before they opted not to give him a qualifying offer following that season, making him an unrestricted free agent.
That led to Duclair signing a one-year contract with Columbus for the League-minimum $650,000 on July 6, 2018. The attraction to the Blue Jackets was coach John Tortorella, who coached Vincent Lecavalier, the brother of Duclair’s agent, Philippe Lecavalier, with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Duclair wanted to be pushed to become a more complete player, and though there were some challenging moments, he got what he hoped for from Tortorella.
“I had a good experience,” said Duclair, who had 19 points (11 goals, eight assists) in 53 games with Columbus. “He’s a great person, a great coach and guys like playing for him. He’s hard and tough on his players, but what he teaches you in the locker room, what he teaches you one-on-one, it’s very helpful and I’ve taken a few things that he taught me and brought it here, for sure.”
Although Tortorella is happy for Duclair, he is quick to say he’s not taking credit for his breakout season and instead expressed regret for his comments about Duclair four days before he was traded, when he said he didn’t think “he knows how to play.”
“I wish I could take that back because I not only put him in a bad spot there, I know I put his family in a bad spot,” Tortorella said. “I talked to his mother out there when that all happened. That’s something I wish I could take back.
“But as far as the pushing, the shoving, the conflict, the honesty, I thought he handled himself very well.”
When Duclair scored a hat trick for the Senators in a 4-3 overtime win against the Blue Jackets on Dec. 14, some viewed it as Duclair getting revenge on his former coach. But Duclair thinks his relationship with Tortorella has been misconstrued.
“The conversations we had one-on-one were very calm, very learning, understanding,” he said. “Even after I got traded, we kept in touch a little bit after the season. People don’t know that, but we had a good relationship.”
Duclair has a different relationship with Smith, who he calls, “the coach that’s been the most fair with me.”
Smith has used Duclair in all situations, including on the penalty kill, a responsibility he hadn’t had previously. As a result, he’s averaging an NHL career-high 16:30 of ice time per game this season, the first time he’s averaged more than 14 minutes per game since 2016-17 with the Coyotes (14:23).
“I have a chance to play 15 minutes and over that, and when I’m doing that, I get trust from my teammates, trust from my coaching staff,” Duclair said. “Also, penalty killing has really helped grow my overall game. I want to become a 200-foot player and a reliable player, and I think it’s been a good step for me.”
Philippe Boucher, a former NHL defenseman who coached Duclair for two seasons with Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was among those who wondered if Duclair was running out of chances. But Duclair’s play this season has reminded Boucher of when he led the Remparts with 50 goals and 99 points in 59 games in 2013-14.
“I think he realizes now that you’ve got to earn things in the NHL even though you’re a talented player,” said Boucher, now the general manager of Drummondville in the QMJHL. “You can have some good stretches and that’s why he made the NHL at 19, but to play at the level he’s playing now, it’s all consistency and work ethic, and I think he’s found that.”
Although Duclair has hit a dry spell of late, having gone 10 games without a goal, he had an assist in a 5-2 win against the Calgary Flames on Saturday that ended Ottawa’s nine-game winless streak (0-5-4) and is finding other ways to contribute.
Duclair’s 30 blocked shots rank third among Senators forwards behind Jean-Gabriel Pageau (36) and Vladislav Namestnikov (32).
“I’ve got to say, he’s really committed right now to the team,” Pageau said. “You don’t see him only scoring goals, you see him blocking shots and you see him do all the little details good players do. And, luckily, we have him on our team.”
Duclair, who signed a one-year, $1.65 million contract with Ottawa on June 17, 2019, said there have been no discussion of a new contract yet, but he’s hoping to be part of the Senators’ long-term plan.
“That was also one of my goals coming in last year,” Duclair said. “I was sort of a guy on the outside looking in and now I really want to push management’s hands. I want to be here, I want to be part of the rebuild, and be part of moving forward and a guy you can rely on.”
NHL.com Independent Correspondent Craig Merz contributed to this article