For a contending team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, you have to make the most out of your limited draft selections each season. For the most part, the picks they have remaining on draft day are considered “low-value,” as they often take place in the later rounds when it gets harder and harder to find NHL-caliber talent still on the board.
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However, sometimes great talent falls down the draft board for various reasons, such as a player’s smaller size scaring away general managers and not necessarily their skillset and intangibles. The Lightning have thrived in recent years by taking chances on these high-upside players, as they have pulled star talent like Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli out of the third round or later.
Lightning Took a Chance on Dylan Duke
At the 2021 NHL Draft, Tampa Bay made another one of these selections when they traded up to take forward Dylan Duke 126th overall in Round 4. Heading into the draft, many saw Duke as a player with first-round talent that could be held back due to his 5’10” frame. Despite this, he was projected to be a mid-second-round to an early third-rounder at worst because his skillset was undeniable and he was on a clear path to playing hockey at the University of Michigan for the 2021-22 season.
While his fall down the draft board was unexpected, it presented another golden opportunity for the Lightning. As a team with experience developing undersized forwards into NHL starters, they selected Duke with the plan to sit back and let him play at one of the top Universities in North America for a handful of years to help him hone his game before seeing how he could translate to the American Hockey League (AHL).
In his first season, Duke put together a respectable 10 goals and 19 points in 41 games played with Michigan. While those numbers may not seem impressive, you have to remember just how ridiculously stacked the Wolverines were in 2021-22, as they featured four of the top-five selections at the 2021 Draft. So, for him to earn even 41 starts was a big deal and a great sign for his future.
To start the 2022-23 season, Michigan went about replacing the talent drain that occurred after their run to the 2022 Frozen Four, which gave Duke an opportunity to expand his role with the team. With this, he played 20 games and posted 10 goals and 18 points, putting him on pace to break his previous season’s scoring totals less than halfway through the season.
Duke Earned His Spot at the 2023 World Junior Championship
With this strong start, Duke did more than showcase how well he is developing, but he also caught the eye of the USA 2023 World Junior Championship (WJC) committee. After making camp, he earned a place on the final roster and is expected to start on the third line alongside top NHL prospects like Redmond Savage and Tyler Boucher. This is a perfect spot for him, as it will allow him to showcase the best aspects of his game, which includes playing heavy and winning puck battles despite his small size.
As said by Steven Ellis of daileyfaceoff.com:
One of the biggest standouts during USA’s midweek scrimmage was Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Dylan Duke, who has had a fantastic sophomore campaign with the University of Michigan. Dangerous around the net, Duke plays a heavy game, hitting anyone he pleases while possessing a nice wrister. He’s more of a scorer than a feed-master, so he’s bound to put a few past goalies in Moncton.
The 2023 World Junior Championship could be a real coming-out party for Duke, as he will be in a great spot to contribute meaningful scoring in a depth role, while not being asked to be one of the stars of the team. If things go really well, he could see his playing time expanded, but for now, even 10 to 12 minutes of ice time each night would be a good showcase of what he brings to the ice against top talent. Also, he strikes me as the kind of player who will score an unexpected game-winning goal off the bench, so keep that in mind as you watch the WJC play out.
What the Lightning Have in Duke
If you’re the Lightning, you have to look at Duke’s development so far and smile. Everything is going to plan, as he is showcasing the first-round skillset that some scouts saw without experiencing the major drawbacks related to his size and durability. While it would be great for him to be a factor at the 2023 WJC, just making the final roster for the USA is a big deal, especially when you consider how far he fell on draft day.
Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship
So, while it is unfair to compare him to a player like Ross Colton who was a fourth-round pick but made an impact at the NHL after playing in the NCAA, you can see Duke take taking a similar path through Tampa Bay’s prospect system. Given how things are developing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him on the ice for the Lightning in a few seasons, which would be another big win for the franchise as they fight to extend their Stanley Cup window.