Anthony Duclair debuted at age 19 for the New York Rangers; the team ended sending him back to juniors after 18 games (and seven points), but the future appeared bright for the speedy left wing. At the 2015 trade deadline, he was moved to the Arizona Coyotes. The win-now Rangers were gearing up for a playoff push and coveted veteran defenseman Keith Yandle to run the power play. Duclair, meanwhile, would reunite with world juniors teammate Max Domi and take on a large role. In his first full season in Arizona, Duclair notched 20 goals and 24 assists, finishing 10th in Calder Trophy voting. The ascent had begun.
Three years later, Duclair is now on his fourth NHL team. What’s most puzzling is that he possesses the two most desired traits in today’s NHL: youth and speed. And yet he has become a cautionary tale for the fragility of a career and how difficult it can be to stick, for no reason at all. “I’ve been through a lot the last four years,” he says. “It goes fast, I can tell you that.”
Duclair was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks this past January, but after a short Audition over the rest of the season, the team decided not to make a qualifying offer. Duclair had not yet reached his athletic prime, yet here he was at a career crossroads.
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“I did a lot of soul-searching,” Duclair says. And what did he come up with? Signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets for a veterans-minimum $650,000. Duclair had interest from other teams, but one thing attracted him to the Blue Jackets — or rather, one man. John Tortorella has a reputation as one of the most demanding coaches in the league. He is infamous for rants that go viral on Reddit, for calling out his players publicly and for being an avatar for the bitter, get-off-my-lawn voice in hockey. (In October, Tortorella infamously lamented the lack of hate in today’s NHL.) It wasn’t what Duclair craved, but he knew it was what he needed. The result?
Duclair is one of the league’s best bargains. Among players on standard contracts making less than $1 million this season, he ranks fifth in points per game (0.50), with eight goals and four assists. Though Duclair has endured a recent slump (going scoreless in his past five games) and was the subject of an early November benching and singling out by Tortorella — his offense? “He’s got to learn how to check” — Duclair is happy; he feels his career has been given a new life.
“I made it a goal to go to Columbus with a fresh start,” the Quebec native says. “Since the beginning of the year, just being here is a good thing for me. I feel good here and I want to stay here long term now.”
Getting to that point took some growing pains. ESPN asked Duclair to share one thing he learned on each of his stops. In his own words below, this is a peek inside the education of a player still realizing his potential.
Editor’s note: Answers are lightly edited for clarity.
“The NHL is a big step from junior, I learned that pretty quickly. My first game, I just couldn’t believe the speed and the skill. I had to make plays at a faster pace. I got to know what to do with the puck before I get it.
“Being away from home, it was different. In juniors, it was an adjustment. I was still living with a billet family, but just being away from my family and just that transition to not seeing my family every day was hard. Being away from home was also different in New York, and I was playing on a bigger stage. The veterans were really good guys. Derick Brassard was a fellow French-[speaking] guy, and he helped me out. I never felt alone. Kevin Hayes was my roommate. That made it an easy transition because I got a lot of help from those guys.
“With the trade, I learned that hockey is a business. I wasn’t too happy when it went down. At the same time, I sort of understood it. [The Rangers] were going for a Cup run and they got a very good defenseman in Keith Yandle, a guy who could help them win the Cup that year, so I understood it from that perspective. I had a lot of time to think about it. I was in junior at the time, so it wasn’t one of the things where I was traded midseason and had to pack my bags and play [for a new team] the next day. But there was still shock. Why would that happen? What did I do? I talked to [Domi] and a couple guys I knew that were part of the [Arizona] organization. I heard good things about it, so I switched to excitement in the end.
“Coming off the world juniors I had with Domi, the chemistry we had, it was pretty obvious Arizona wanted me. So I took it in a good way, and thought I could get an opportunity to step into the NHL at 20 years old and make an impact right away.”
“Well, first I learned to drink a lot of water, especially in the heat. I remember my first training camp, I didn’t know how dry the heat was, and I just didn’t drink a lot of water. My muscles tightened and my groin [muscles] were awful during the whole camp. So I learned I need to take care of my body in that sense.
“I also learned I couldn’t take a day off. It’s a business. Every day, you have to come into work, but you have to work as hard as you can. Whether it’s a practice or a game or a morning skate: Make sure you are paying attention to detail at every meeting, every time the coach talks.
“I learned it didn’t really matter what you do in the past. My rookie year, 20-goal season? That wasn’t going to carry over. You’re only as good as your last game. You need to put that in the past and look to the future.”
“They were a team I looked up to growing up, an Original Six team, so much history behind them, with a great city, great fans, and a great core group who have won. I was excited to learn from those guys.
“I learned if you’re not consistent with the opportunity, someone will take your spot pretty quickly. I learned that in my short time there. I didn’t perform like I wanted to, and that’s the main reason why they did not re-sign me and let me go. If you’re not consistent every game and put the effort in, it’s going to be a young guy or someone else in the league can replace you at any time.”
“Before signing here, I talked to a bunch of guys that played for Torts and all I heard was good things. They all said he takes your game to another level and that’s what I need, especially at this time in my career. You hear and you see all those interviews on YouTube and all those rants, it’s because he cares. He cares about his players. The main thing I heard is, ‘If you work hard for him, he’ll battle for you.’
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“My agent is Philippe Lecavalier, and his brother is Vinny. I talked to him a lot, about what happened in Tampa, when [Tortorella] came in and took the ‘C’ away from him. We talked about what he went through. Then he told me it would be a good fit for me to play for him. It definitely opened my eyes, and it definitely was a no-brainer coming from a guy like that.
“A lot of guys respect him around the league. If you’re playing well under him and you have success, that opens up a lot of eyes around the league. I want to put that on myself. I know what I’m capable of, I’m betting on myself.
“If he calls me out, I don’t take anything personal. He’s just trying to make me a better player. He talks to me privately as well, he doesn’t keep anything secret; if he has something to say, he says it, and as a player you respect that a lot. Some coaches keep it to themselves and you don’t get an explanation. He’s going to give you that explanation every time. I like the challenge.”