Sharks forward Anthony Duclair is having a down year. Is it worth trading for him?

When is the worst time for a player to have a down year?

It hurts a player when that coincides with a contract year. For a team, the worst time can be when that player is viewed as a trade asset.

That’s what Anthony Duclair and the San Jose Sharks are facing this year.

Duclair is in the final year of a three-year, $9 million contract. With that contract expiring, and the Sharks being so far removed from the playoff mix, it would make the most sense to trade him to a contender.

Sure, San Jose doesn’t have to move Duclair. His down season — eight goals and 16 points in 41 games thus far — could lead to a discount signing this summer and keep someone in the lineup who is more than just a depth stopgap. While the Sharks will not be back in the playoff mix anytime soon, it would help to have some skilled players to support incoming young talent — which could feature the likes of Macklin Celebrini, or another top-five caliber draft pick next year. That’s exactly why Chicago brought in Taylor Hall to play with Connor Bedard last summer.

But the more likely scenario sees Duclair getting moved ahead of the trade deadline. A rebuilding team like the Sharks should be trying to squeeze as much value out of their trade assets as possible to bring back future assets that will help move this process along. Ideally, the Sharks can find a return that’s more than what they spent to acquire him in the first place. The Florida Panthers did not have much leverage when trading him over the summer with their cap squeeze in mind, so they only got Steven Lorentz and a 2025 fifth-rounder in return.

If an acquiring team is going to spend more than that return from the summer, it will likely require two things. The first may be salary retention if that playoff team is already up against the cap; it has to be worthwhile for San Jose to agree to that considering he is the last player it can retain cap on until the season expires. The second is the belief that Duclair can be a better player outside of San Jose and that this season isn’t reflective of the caliber of player he is.

Duclair’s having one of his worst seasons to date in San Jose. He is only on pace for 30 points across a 77-game season, which would not only be a major downswing from his last full season but one of the worst of his career. When accounting for minutes played, his 1.47 points per 60 only exceeds his 2016-17 season in Arizona.

The root of Duclair’s problems this year has come at five-on-five. The Sharks have earned less than 44 percent of the expected and actual goals share in his minutes. It isn’t a huge surprise that his underlying numbers have taken a dip on a team like the Sharks. But what is somewhat concerning is that he isn’t as impactful on the team’s offensive creation this season relative to his teammates.

Via HockeyViz

What’s contributing to that offensive downturn? Some of it stems from Duclair bringing the puck into the offensive zone less than in recent years, according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking (2022-23 comes with a sample size warning since it was a condensed season for him). While there has been a slight downtick in his zone entry rate, what is even more noticeable is the dip in his controlled entries — he is down to 8.64 per 60 this season compared to 13.63 in 2021-22. Duclair has only carried the puck into the zone about 55.2 percent of the time this year, when he was closer to 70 percent in last year’s condensed season, and 82.8 the year prior. When he does bring the puck into the offensive zone with control, those entries aren’t leading to as many scoring chances, either.

Duclair’s puck movement is down in general from the last couple of years. His primary shot assist rate is almost half of what it was in his peak 2021-22 season, and he isn’t setting his teammates up for scoring chances often, either. And that’s not the only aspect of his offense that’s suffered. Duclair has taken fewer shots and driven to the quality areas of the ice even less, and much of that seems to have to do with the major downturn in his ability to create off the rush.

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That suppressed offense, paired with more well-documented gaps in his game on the other end of the ice, doesn’t exactly make him an appealing trade option for a contender. If the Sharks have been willing to scratch him for those flaws, considering who else is there to replace him, why would this player fit on a contender?

Duclair’s skill did not just disappear this season. There have been glimpses of it throughout the year.

The consistency is just not there.

It’s a safe bet that his environment plays a key role in that — whether he just isn’t clicking within the Sharks’ systems (and honestly, who has this year) or lacks the support to play to his best level.

The latter is the key for a contender to keep in mind.

In San Jose, Duclair is in a position to be more of a leading contributor because there just isn’t that much depth above him in the lineup. On a playoff-caliber roster, he’s more fittingly part of the supporting cast. Coaches have a better chance of trying to mask some of Duclair’s deficiencies and amplify his strengths on a deeper roster. That hasn’t happened with the Sharks, with his primary linemates being Mikael Granlund and Fabian Zetterlund. That’s a huge drop-off from his last couple of seasons. When he returned from injury last year, he primarily spent time on a line with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe in the regular season and playoffs. The year before, he played about 40 percent of his time with that duo. Otherwise, he was rounding out a line with Jonathan Huberdeau, during his high-octane scoring season, and Sam Bennett.

In those roles with the Panthers, he shined. Some of it’s because he didn’t have to be the primary player on a line, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as an acquiring team is aware of those limitations, in addition to his strengths.

At his best, Duclair could be counted on to help drive play into the offensive zone with control. He’s a threat off the rush and can be counted on for shots off the cycle as well. The key to the latter is pairing him with a strong forechecker to make the plays that extend possession time. Duclair can generate his own chances (and convert on them), but he thrives alongside a dangerous passer. Plus, he’s shown in his best seasons that he can also be a puck distributor in the offense zones to set up his teammates.

That ability is essentially what made Duclair an ideal internal rental for the Panthers last year. He was an addition who made an impact down the stretch and throughout Florida’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. And that is the potential he brings this season if an acquiring team can better maximize his game than San Jose has this year.

There is always some level of risk when it comes to player movement, and that only heightens when a player is in the midst of a down year. But Duclair is a relatively low-risk player for teams to bet on, considering his cap hit and what the likely cost of acquisition will be. So as contenders get into bidding wars over forwards who can bring more jam to their lineup, there should be a market for someone who has a ceiling of being a top-nine spark.

—Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, HockeyStatCards, AllThreeZones, and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.

(Photo: Stan Szeto / USA Today)

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