At his exit interview Wednesday, Matt Duchene couldn't say enough great things about the Blue Jackets and the City of Columbus.
“Unbelievable group of guys,” he said about his teammates. ”The culture here is great. It's a winning culture, top to bottom. There's not one aspect where you think this needs to change or this needs to be better. I was blown away by it. I'd heard from other guys I'd played with and knew around the league what a great group they had here, so that definitely didn't disappoint.”
What about the fans and the city of Columbus?
“As far as the city, and the fans? Just wild. I did not expect that. Amazing city, great fanbase. Simple as that.”
“As far as the city, and the fans? Just wild. I did not expect that. Amazing city, great fanbase. Simple as that. That experience we just had for me, that's definitely right up there with some of my best memories and best experiences I've had in hockey.”
For nearly 10 minutes, Duchene spoke openly and honestly about his future. The center, acquired by the Blue Jackets from Ottawa before the trade deadline, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, free to sign with any team in the league on July 1.
Of the three big names on the Blue Jackets roster entering free agency this summer – Duchene, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and winger Artemi Panarin – Duchene is considered the most likely to re-sign with the team. He bonded with several of his teammates and genuinely seemed to embrace the city and club during the Jackets' Stanley Cup Playoffs run.
His five goals, including two game-winners, tied Panarin for the most ever by a Blue Jacket in the postseason and his 10 points, coming in 10 games, are the second-most ever produced by a member of the franchise in playoff action.
Who can forget Duchene firing up the Nationwide Arena crowd following the Blue Jackets' 3–0 win in Game 3 of the opening round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning?
Duchene had waited his entire 10-year career for a moment like this.
“I've been so happy to be a Blue Jacket and grateful to be here and obviously, it would be a great thing if it continues,” Duchene said Wednesday.
The Blue Jackets, of course, are the only team that can sign Duchene to a max, eight-year deal. There's also an Ohio connection. Duchene's wife, Ashley, has family from Ohio and her mother and brother are both big Ohio State fans.
But he knows decisions like these may only come around once in a player's career.
“My intent is to explore everything that could be out there,” Duchene said. “I've really enjoyed my time here and we will definitely be talking to Jarmo and the Blue Jackets and seeing what's in store.
“It's probably the biggest decision I'll have to make. Definitely the biggest I've made to this point. I'm going to take my time and talk to my family and my representation and see what's best.”
For Duchene, the hockey aspect will be the most important part of his decision.
“Well, the hockey side is number one,” he said. “Whatever that encompasses, personal and team-wise. Second, I want to make sure my wife is happy and comfortable and is able to be happy because there's so much time when I'm gone and she's here holding down the fort, so I put very high importance on that as well.”
As one of the top centers in the game, re-signing Duchene is a priority for the Blue Jackets, who could see him move into a role as the team's No. 1 playmaker should Panarin depart this summer.
“We've talked to him about our vision and our plans and all of that several times,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said when asked about Duchene's future. “Time will tell what his plans are. As I said to him when we traded for him, I said we're fine accepting the risk that he might just be a rental and if that's the case, that's the case. But he brought a lot of those things we thought he'd bring. He's a skilled player. He's great in the faceoffs. He's a good power play player. He can bring offense by beating people 1-on-1, making plays and scoring goals.”
If nothing else, Duchene was frank throughout his exit interview. His words seemed genuine and he appears to realize the gravity of the decision ahead of him, even if he hadn't given it much thought until now.
“Honestly this is the most I've thought about and the most I've talked about it in a long time so you guys are really making me think I'm going to go home and sit in a dark room.”