Coming off a last-place finish in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche
weren't supposed to find themselves anywhere near the playoff picture a season ago.
Nobody told Matt Duchene
, however, and by the time spring rolled around the 19-year-old first-round draft pick had gone from a player merely hoping to stick in the NHL to a hero who lifted his team back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It was a really energetic (atmosphere)" around the team last season, Duchene told NHL.com about a group that included fellow rookies T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O'Reilly
and Brandon Yip
and was led by a first-year coach in Joe Sacco.
"There wasn't a whole lot of nervous energy just because we had so many guys that were going through the same thing and we just had fun doing it. I think our success early was almost because we were so stubborn as young kids that we didn't believe we were ever going to lose, and I think that's a great thing to have."
On the strength of a 10-2-2 opening month, Colorado grabbed the early lead in the Northwest Division and challenged for first place throughout most of the season. But a late slump in the extremely competitive West made for a frantic finish, as the Avalanche battled the hard-charging Calgary Flames
for the eighth and final playoff berth.
It all came to fruition for Duchene and his teammates on the night of April 6 in Vancouver. Less than 10 months after the Avalanche selected him with the third pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, Duchene found himself alone at center ice, staring down Roberto Luongo
at the other end, then skating in and scoring the decisive shootout goal that punched Colorado's playoff ticket.
"It was amazing. That's probably the most exciting moment of my hockey career to date," Duchene said. "That was one of those things where I'm sitting on the bench and I'm kind of hoping, actually, that it's going to end up where I'm going to be able to have an impact on the game. I was happy I was going third and had the last shot and it was one of those things where I was standing there going, 'There's no way I'm missing this.' That was a ton of fun and just the best feeling in the world and definitely the highlight of my career so far."
Of course, Duchene's NHL career is only just beginning. He finished his rookie season with 24 goals and 55 points, tops among all first-year players, and was a Calder Trophy finalist. One of the things Duchene remembers most, though, is just the feeling of accomplishment that came with starting the season in Colorado.
"Making the team was huge -- you make the NHL, it's your dream from the time you're a little kid, so that was amazing when I found that out," he said.
Duchene doesn't have to worry much about making the Avalanche this season, so the question becomes how much better can he become with a year under his belt? Steven Stamkos
put up 23 goals and 46 points as a rookie, then exploded into stardom his sophomore season, tying Sidney Crosby
with a League-leading 51 goals and recording 95 points.
While he isn't promising such a drastic statistical improvement, the highly-competitive Duchene is determined to keep pushing himself toward that next level.
"You really don't know what you're capable of until you get out there," he said. "I just want to improve on things from last year -- obviously in how I help the team, first and foremost, and by doing that I'm sure my stats and everything will improve personally. I'm just looking to improve and build year by year. You don't want to be going backwards, you want to keep getting better."
Duchene played in 81 of 82 regular-season games and all six of Colorado's playoff games in a first-round series loss to San Jose. Although he was held to 3 assists by the Sharks, he said he wasn't fatigued in the least by the rigors of his first NHL season.
"I actually felt better energy-wise, conditioning, physically everything I felt better as the year went on," Duchene said.
Even still, he made sure to step up his offseason conditioning program, spending time training with Crosby, among others. The two have developed a friendship and Duchene said it's inspiring to see how someone who has already achieved Crosby's level of greatness continues to strive at getting better.
"His focus is pretty amazing. I think a lot of elite players will share the same mentality that when you get in the weight room or get on the ice, it's business, and it's just good to see in a guy like that," Duchene said. "He's the best because he works the hardest. … He has the same approach as I do, which is definitely reassuring."
What should be reassuring to any Colorado fan concerned that the Avalanche could slide back out of the West's elite eight as rapidly as they re-entered it is Duchene's assertion this team is capable of much greater things.
"You really don't know what you're capable of until you get out there. I just want to improve on things from last year -- obviously in how I help the team, first and foremost, and by doing that I'm sure my stats and everything will improve personally. I'm just looking to improve and build year by year. You don't want to be going backwards, you want to keep getting better."
-- Matt Duchene
While they will have to contend with Chicago, San Jose and Detroit at the top of the conference and teams like Vancouver in their own division, the Avalanche have a clear goal in mind to get back to the playoffs and take another shot at a Stanley Cup run.
"I think it's that little bit of taste of the playoffs, and that gives you that hunger to want to be there every single year you play," Duchene said. "I know everyone on our team has that hunger and that's really what we're aiming for this year.
"If everyone gets just that little bit better then it's going to make our team that much better. It's going to be huge. If everyone comes and just improves their game by a little bit, as a collective whole it's going to be a big difference. We should have the confidence and the consistency figured out by now after last year, and hopefully we can string together some wins early and keep it rolling the rest of the year."