If there’s one thing the Tampa Bay Lightning have never been afraid of throughout their history, it’s taking a chance on an undersized yet highly skilled forward. The franchise has built championship contenders on the back of names like Martin St. Louis, Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point, and Yanni Gourde, who are known for their production on the ice despite being smaller than the average hockey player.
During the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois continued this tradition when he selected centerman Dylan Duke in the fourth round. Heading into draft day, many expected Duke to be a second-round selection, who could move up into the first round if a team fell in love with his upside showcased while playing for the US nation Team Development Program (USNTDP Juniors) and with the U.S. National U18 team.
However, while Duke had the toolkit of a top selection, he simply lacked the size needed to draw attention. This caused him to unexpectedly tumble down the draft board before he was selected by the Lightning in Round 4 with pick #126.
If you want to be cynical, you can argue that BriseBois had already passed on Duke once with his third-round selection, which further proves that he was being overrated before the draft. However, the fact that he felt the need to trade back into Round 4 in order to pick him up shows his recognition of the player having potential above his draft status.
Duke Is Following a Path to Success Through Michigan
Another aspect that made Duke an appealing prospect for a team like the Lightning was his commitment to play with the University of Michigan Wolverines starting in the 2021-22 season. This meant he could spend three to four years honing his craft at one of the top universities in the country while playing alongside some of the top prospects in the world.
In case you haven’t been keeping up with university hockey, Michigan’s roster is a murderers’ row of elite talent, with four of the top-five selections at the 2021 draft donning Maize and Blue in 2021. As a Freshman coming into such a competitive environment, Duke was going to need to be exceptional in order to steal playing time away from his teammates.
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For his part, Duke has found a role with the Wolverines. In 40 games played, he has posted 10 goals and 19 points, which places him 10th overall for Michigan. Given the level of competition he is facing, those are solid scoring totals that showcase what he can be while leaving plenty of room for growth as he is asked to do more in the coming seasons.
Duke Holds the Keys to His Future With Lightning
While it is still far too early to call Duke a sure-fire NHL starter for the Lightning, everything is there for him to be able to take those gradual steps throughout his career. When BriseBois selected him, he likely did so with the idea of stashing him in Michigan for at least three to four years to not only develop his game but also put Tampa Bay in a different position roster-wise.
See, in the coming years, there will be a lot of turnover in the Lightning’s forward corps. Long-time franchise faces will be entering unrestricted free agency, meaning that they will be able to pursue a bigger contract than what Tampa Bay will likely be able to provide. This is a cap-strapped franchise, after all, and this problem won’t be getting better while the cap remains near flat.
If Duke continues on his current path, he will be finishing University around 2025. By that point, names like Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat could be gone from the franchise, while younger players like Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel will be on their next big contracts.
For the Lightning, having a skilled, young player like Duke on a cost-controlled entry-level contract would be a windfall. Finding talent like this late in the draft is how a franchise stays competitive for years, and for now, it appears that the Lightning made the right choice when they traded back into the 2021 fourth-round to get their man.