Joseph
Aleong
February 23, 2021

Deep Dive: A look into Dylan Duke’s game

Dylan Duke was a standout from a young age, serving as a captain of the prestigious Compuware Hockey program in his minor midget days. Despite being nabbed in the 2019 OHL Draft’s third round by the Saginaw Spirit, Duke decided to keep his talents in Plymouth, MI, committing to play with the USA National Development Program en route to a future spot with the University of Michigan.

Duke immediately made a huge impact with the USNTDP, finishing just three points back of the team lead in points and playing in all situations down the middle for the U17 squad. He also finished just two goals back of the team lead in goals, trailing only Chaz Lucius, a much-heralded sniper and near-consensus lottery pick for the draft this year. Despite his productivity, Duke was by no means a highly-regarded prospect heading into the year.

Duke is off to a flying start with the USNTDP’s U18 team this year, centering their top line and leading them in goals and points (also due to an untimely injury to Sasha Pastujov) while still playing the same effective two-way, high-energy style that made him such a go-to player last season.

AN ELITE COMPETITOR

The first thing that stands out about Duke is his intensity on the ice and his energy level to hound puck-carriers and break plays up in transition. In previous years, Duke’s prodigious production among some of the most competitive midget hockey in America was followed by questions surrounding his size and how well his playing style would translate to leagues with older, better, and stronger opponents.

This year, however, Duke has gained strength and filled out his frame noticeably, allowing him to be consistently physical throughout games and make more of an impact in high-leverage minutes like killing penalties. He has also made a notable impression with his high motor and attention to detail in all three zones.

While his stride may look short and choppy at times, he has great foot speed and accelerates quickly from a stopped or standing position, allowing him to pursue opponents tightly and change directions quickly to keep pace as well as create separation from defenders with quick maneuvers and cuts on a dime. His physical game has come along this year, with his added strength making his presence in board battles more menacing and his hits causing more loose pucks than in previous years.

In this clip, Duke is a step behind his man in a loose puck race, but he makes up the difference with great crossover strides to accelerate quickly and get body positioning on his bigger opponent.

Using the low centre of gravity in his stride, Duke’s opponent initiates contact to try and maintain his body positioning between Duke and the loose puck. However, Duke’s acceleration allows him to gain a half-step on his man, which allows him to shrug off a hit with good dynamic posture while corralling the puck and reversing a pass to an open teammate before being closed off into the boards.

It’s this constant pressure and instincts on cycle plays that have allowed Duke to seamlessly step into the U18 level and play a variety of roles. His relentless puck pursuit shines through on the penalty kill, where he’s one of the most heavily-used NTDP forwards and is able to create chances regularly by using his speed to cause hurried decisions by opposing defenders.

Duke’s speed and instincts on the forecheck are on full display in this short clip against older opponents in Air Force Academy.

With Air Force regrouping early into a power play, Duke busts his ass down the ice from his own zone when he recognizes the goaltender leaving his crease to play the puck.

The Air Force goaltender is forced to rim the puck around the boards to his second option with just a quick glance right before playing the puck. Duke is able to make a tight turn around traffic behind the net, staying low in his stride and exploding in pursuit of the puck by utilizing crossovers. Duke’s puck skills take over, stealing the puck from his flat-footed opponent (AF20) with no supporting players to beat. Duke opens up a quick breakaway opportunity and finishes in tight to the net with a smooth backhand to forehand move.

It’s early into his shift, but Duke’s pace of play and hustle on this play create a chance out of nothing for the USNTDP. He possesses an innate ability to disrupt his opponents’ handle in quick puck battles with quick stick checks, creating changes in possession and offensive chances when he’s in on the forecheck. He gets some chances to show off his open-ice speed on special teams opportunities, but his high motor and ability to create turnovers in transition are both hallmarks of his game at even strength as well.

He has great straight-line speed thanks to his foot speed and his conditioning, an evident factor in him soaking up such heavy minutes in tough situations down the middle. He doesn’t get a great extension on his strides and it can look choppy and upright at times. He’s still very elusive on his edges, however, allowing him to be aggressive attacking through the neutral zone and weaving through multiple defenders in transition.

NEUTRAL ZONE AWARENESS

Another area Duke is consistently involved in is transition play through the neutral zone, both on offense and backchecking on defense. He utilizes quick changes of direction and his outside speed to create lanes into the offensive end, and the threat of his offensive skill opens up space in the zone for his linemates when he drives into traffic with speed.

 

In the above clip, Duke combines his defensive instincts in transition with great acceleration, as he gains the offensive zone easily and beats his defender wide, opening up a passing lane to the middle of the slot that his linemates are unable to reach.

Duke can be guilty of putting his head down and cutting to the front of the net and passing up open teammates trailing on the rush, but he shows some solid vision here to find a lane, even if the end result wasn’t successful.

He is always active in the defensive end, looking to build up speed, and doesn’t hesitate to attack the middle of the neutral zone and turn the play up ice. He is very elusive with the puck and makes quick reads when faced with pressure, showing good awareness and instincts to find an open man even while skating at high speed.

In this clip, Duke makes two quick outlet passes under pressure, once in the neutral zone to beat a forechecker and again through traffic to set up his linemate with a prime scoring chance.

He starts the sequence in a good defensive spot, supporting his defenders low on the breakout and building speed. He makes a touch pass at high speed when CHI23 steps up on him in the neutral zone, then beats him to the offensive blue line to create a small two-on-one with US25. He is able to beat CHI2 to the pass and makes a quick feed under pressure.

Duke is able to create another opportunity off an innocuous-looking breakout by pushing the puck up ice with great pace and executing quick plays while under pressure.

Sometimes when he’s given room to operate off the rush and faced with a one-on-one opportunity, Duke makes the most of them with flashy moves or by cutting across the zone to create a lane for trailing teammates coming into the zone after him. When pushing the pace of play or pressured while still building up in the neutral zone, Duke takes it wide and tries to use his speed and leverage to create a driving lane to the front of the net.

OFFENSIVE ABILITIES

In another recent game against college competition, Duke shows good defensive positioning and anticipation to pressure a pass to the point and blocks the defender’s shot, creating a one-on-one opportunity in transition:

Duke again begins in solid defensive positioning, as he rotates from the corner into the slot to protect against high-danger passes. His positioning allows him to pressure the point pass very closely, leading to a steal from AD20 and a head of steam against the last defender.

Duke then shows off his hands with a nice move to beat his man at the blue line, then scores on the breakaway with a quick release in the slot that surprises the goaltender and beats him between his legs.

He uses his agility and puckhandling abilities to excel at gaining the offensive zone, showing an aggressive mindset in one-on-one battles at times and attacking with consistent pace to push the opposing defenders back. Here, he takes advantage of a line change, creating a clean rush chance that he’s unable to capitalize on:

Duke does a great job receiving a long pass without losing speed by catching it inside crossovers and is able to exploit Chicago’s partial change by attacking the blue line and slowing up a little bit to allow his linemate time to cut through the middle of the ice.

Duke shows good patience here as he enters the zone, but CHI7 plays the two-on-two perfectly and Duke’s pass to the middle misses his intended target.

In transition is where Duke is able to show off his speed best, as he can get to top speed very quickly, allowing him to catch defenders off-guard and get a step on them when crossing the line.

Duke possesses great awareness and solid vision with the puck, but he has a shooter’s mindset and isn’t afraid to let a shot go from anywhere in the offensive zone. He’s got great power and a deceptive release, displaying the ability to drag the puck into his hip pocket or change the angle prior to releasing the puck:

He loves to shoot the puck off the rush, which gives him time to set his feet and transfer all of his weight into the shot with minimal pressure from opposing players. While he is still a threat to pass on odd-man rushes or opportunities where a teammate has a clean look to the net, Duke loves to shoot and could become a threat to score from anywhere in the offensive end if he took more looks from outside the low slot.

In the offensive zone, however, Duke’s philosophy seems to be to take the puck to high-dangers areas and direct all traffic to the net.

Dylan Duke NHL Draft
Dylan Duke Shot Chart (InStat)

Duke’s shooting map from this season supports what you see in his game: he’s unafraid to release the puck from anywhere in the offensive end, but he’s at his most effective when he takes the puck into high-danger areas and most of his goals come from the low slot area.

Duke isn’t just a shooting threat though. His vision and awareness with the puck stand out in high-traffic areas. He can make quick decisions when faced with pressure and has the awareness to locate passing options and open areas even when shielding the puck from defenders using his physicality.

In this clip, Duke finds a soft spot in coverage off a broken play and, despite being in a prime shooting spot, finds his teammate, US12, coming late from the board battle with a no-look pass for an easy tap-in goal.

Duke makes a subtle shot fake by pulling the goaltender across the net, knowing he’s got help coming from the weak side off some traffic. He excels at using deception in these short-area confrontations, making quick and shifty moves that don’t necessarily wow but will open up space for himself.

In this play, Duke receives a pass under pressure as he comes into the zone. With his head up the whole way, Duke prepares for the pressure and is able to corral the puck and cut around a defender in one impressive move. As the Des Moines defender (DM13) tries to cut off the cross-seam pass, Duke makes a quick stickhandle to alter the angle and open up a passing lane, which opens up a dangerous one-timer opportunity for US12.

It’s these types of small area plays and displays of vision under pressure that translate well to higher levels and will help him create offense as he moves up the ladder to more difficult competition.

AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT

Duke has great puck skills and has shown the ability to make moves and process the game at high speed. However, Duke’s first touch on difficult passes can be erratic at times, leading to split-second delays and goaltender saves where a quicker release or one-timer could have resulted in a goal instead:

Duke’s calling card on offense is his shooting skill and ability to find open space without the puck. As time and space become harder to find at higher levels, Duke’s ability to corral tough passes and get his feet set before receiving a pass must improve to capitalize on his outstanding offensive awareness.

Like I briefly mentioned above, Duke’s skating form and stride are good enough to play at his current level. However, he must improve his explosiveness in his stride and conditioning if he wants to play his style of game at higher levels.

His stride length is just adequate currently and his form can break down at times, looking much more rigid and upright, as he runs out of gas throughout shifts.

Duke has added a noticeable amount of strength this season, but he must continue to build up his lower-body strength to consistently skate with dynamic posture and get the most amount of energy transfer when he finishes a stride. Because his game is so predicated on his speed and pace, his development in this area could be what separates success from failure at the professional level.

He still struggles at times in heavy, slow-paced, physical games, especially in puck battles against older opponents. On the season, he’s winning puck battles at a clip of just 47%, albeit at a very high pace of 12 per game (via InStat). Duke works hard and doesn’t give up on plays easily, but this is still an area of his game that should improve if he wants to produce against older and stronger opponents.

His high motor and aggressive pursuit away from the puck can work against him at times, including flying by the puck in pursuit in his own end and over-pursuing puck carriers in the neutral zone. He would do better to utilize his agility in stopping and starting in the defensive zone to counter quick changes of direction, particularly lower in the zone where his center responsibilities are magnified.

Duke doesn’t have a huge repertoire of moves or dekes at high speed, putting into question his ability to beat defenders one-on-one at higher levels of play. He opts to play more of a north-south game in transition, keeping it simple and turning back with possession and passing up opportunities to attack when he doesn’t have support with him.

Due to this lack of explosiveness and creativity with the puck, it’s unlikely Duke continues his top-line production at the NHL level. However, he has an energetic style and array of promising offensive tools, including an advanced shot and strong awareness in all three zones. These are solid indicators that Duke can continue to make the adjustments necessary to make an impact wherever he plays, and he should be getting a little more consideration for a first-round ranking if he keeps up his impressive form.

FCHOCKEY’S 2021 NHL DRAFT DEEP DIVES:

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