NEW YORK – The shot trickled through Darcy Kuemper. Anthony Duclair, who already showed impressive speed skating down the wing, found another gear in circling around the Minnesota Wild to celebrate.
It was his first NHL goal, and arguably the biggest of Monday's game: Completing a New York Rangers’ third-period comeback to tie the Wild, 4-4, the momentum carrying over to Mats Zuccarello's game-winnner 35 seconds later.
Duclair, 19, skated back to the bench as the crowd chanted his nickname: “Duuuuuuuke…”
“It doesn’t get old,” he said of the chants. “To get the first one in Madison Square Garden, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the Duke. Or, for Duclair, to be the Duke again. It was his nickname in midget hockey, but he lost it in junior with the Quebec Remparts. You know how two players with the same number have to decide who wears what? Well, you can't have two "Dukes" either. And Duclair was at a disadvantage, because he was up against an actual Duke: Defenseman Brendan Duke.
“So I had to change it to Tony,” said Duclair.
By any name, he’s had an impact on the Rangers at the start of the season. Duclair has five points in seven games, including an assist in front of his parents in friends in the Rangers’ game at the Montreal Canadiens over the weekend.
“When he plays they way he did the last two games, it’s not hard [to give him ice time],” said coach Alain Vigneault.
Duclair didn’t see the ice much against the Wild, but that was due to the 14 minutes in penalty killing time the Rangers were faced with on Monday. But he was strong in the 10:29 he played, including his first NHL goal.
“I had outside speed. I saw an opening there, low blocker. It squeezed through luckily. It was a big goal for me confidence wise, and I’m just happy to get the first one out of the way,” he said.
He’s been a spark plug in the Rangers’ lineup, and one that’s putting up points. Which leads to the most interesting question about Anthony Duclair through seven games: Will he still be around for a 10th game?
He was supposed to be sent back to junior after training camp, but instead the Rangers made a move to open up a roster spot for him. The message from Vigneault at that time: “As long as you can prove you can play in our top nine (forwards), then you’re going to stick with us.”
So with Derek Stepan on the mend and needing a roster spot, Vigneault and the Rangers have an interesting call to make.
I'd like to say I've always been on the Duclair bandwagon, but I've probably underrated him for about six months. Given a chance to amend, Duclair would have surely been on my top 100 NHL prospects list instead of just being an honorable mention. When I scouted him at Canada's World Junior Championship evaluation camp, he looked outstanding and has carried that into the start of his pro career.
His skating/skill combination is really high end, and he projects as a quality top-six forward for the Rangers in the near future. Despite putting up three points already, that future may not be now. There's nothing wrong with sending him back down to work on his all-around game, bulk up his 5-foot-11 frame, play well for Canada at the WJC and come back next season in a position to compete for a significant spot on New York's roster.
There's a wrinkle here for Duclair, according to the New York Post (h/t Peter P.):
An interesting note on Duclair’s contract: Ordinarily, the contract would slide for a second straight season if Duclair returns to juniors, thus leaving him with the full three-year Entry Level deal to fulfill. But because Duclair did not sign his first contract until Jan. 6, 2014, thus missing the Dec. 31, 2013 cutoff date, the Rangers got only one “slide year” out of it.
Thus, even if Duclair returns to Quebec, the winger will have just two years remaining on his contract and would become eligible for restricted free agency in 2017. He will not, however, have salary-arbitration rights, which he would have held at the expiration of the three-year deal if it included two slide years. A management source told The Post that Duclair’s camp preferred it this way.
His unrestricted free-agent status could also be moved up if he plays this season.
There's logic in sending him down for another year of growth. But the 19-year-old forward is stating his case, and his coach is listening.
“Talent has no age,” said Vigneault.
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