By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers prospect Anthony Duclair played a pivotal role in helping Canada end a six-year gold medal drought at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Alongside center Sam Reinhart and left wing Max Domi, Duclair produced the goods on Canada's electric top line. The 19-year-old winger finished the tournament with four goals, four assists and a plus-11 rating in seven tournament games.
Following Tuesday's 5-4 thrilling victory over Russia, Duclair skated around the Air Canada Center ice with a smile on his face and a gold medal around his neck. The question is – where will Duclair be skating next?
Decision time is looming for the Rangers. They are about to begin a difficult three-game swing through California, starting with a Wednesday night meeting against the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center. The Rangers could have Duclair join up with them in the Golden State or they could soon decide to return the promising winger to the Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Duclair is not eligible for assignment to the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack.
Should the Rangers send Duclair to Remparts, he would not be eligible to rejoin the Rangers until after the Memorial Cup is concluded in late May – roughly when the 2015 Stanley Cup Final would begin. The Remparts will host the round-robin tournament at Pepsi Coliseum from May 21-31.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault confirmed on Sunday that the team has yet to make a decision on Duclair's future. The Blueshirts landed in California on Monday and will practice on Tuesday.
"There's a lot of components that go into making that decision and one major component that we have to consider is that if we send him down, we can't call him back and that team is Memorial Cup bound," Vigneault said.
Cap space is not an issue. A greater issue would be stunting Duclair's development by offering him infrequent playing time in the NHL. Duclair did not dress for three consecutive games prior to the Rangers loaning him to Team Canada on Dec. 9.
Duclair has scored one goal and has collected six assists through his first 18 NHL games. He is a plus-four and has averaged 12:09 TOI per game.
Hurting Duclair's chances of remaining with the Rangers is the steady play of J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast. The youthful duo has impressed during a stretch where the Rangers have won 10 of 11 games.
Miller has given the Rangers a spark on the power play, recording power play points in two of the past three games. Fast has grown into a Vigneault favorite because of his responsible defensive zone play and willingness to throw the body. AV has affectionately nicknamed the 23-year-old Swede "Quickie."
Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass offer competition and veteran experience. Stempniak has always been a streaky scorer. He is currently on a four-game pointless drought. Known for his rugged style of play and big hits, Glass has been a healthy scratch in consecutive games.
The Rangers' 3.08 goals per game is third-highest in the NHL. It would be difficult for the Rangers to squeeze Duclair into a consistent top-nine forward role.
SO WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR DUCLAIR?
In all likelihood, the Rangers will return Duclair to the Remparts. Doing so would be the best thing for his future. There's no sense in having Duclair sit in the press box or playing sparse minutes on the fourth line. He could also stand to spend another offseason adding bulk to his 5-foot-11, 177-pound frame before being subjected to the rigors of a full NHL season.
Duclair has what it takes to become a top NHL winger. There's no doubt about that.
Certain players have can't-miss ability. Duclair certainly fits in that bracket. He skates with blazing speed, packs a quick-fire release and owns a pair of silky mitts. He's also developed a reputation as a team-first character.
Eventually, his talent will blossom into NHL stardom. This isn't going to be Duclair's year to shine -- 2015-16 might be.
Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey.
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