If you watched USA at the Under-18 World Championship in Texas, you definitely noticed the play of rugged forward Dylan Duke. It was hard not to. Whenever the Americans needed a goal, he was found planted in front of the net creating havoc for the opposing defensemen and getting in the face of goaltenders. He was just always "there" when the Americans needed him to be.
Just watch his play on Sasha Pastujov's goal to tie things up against the Czech Republic in the round-robin: does Pastjuov tie the game up and force overtime if Duke didn't take the defenseman out of the play? Maybe not, and even though his net-front presence doesn't always lead to him getting a point to his credit, you know what he brings to a shift.
That continued against Finland, USA's final matchup of the round-robin. Duke scored the opening goal to give USA some life, and although they fell behind later on and had to force overtime, he created space for Charlie Stramel to score the 2-2 goal later in the game.
Duke had just four points in five games, but his overall performance was enough to earn one of USA's top three player selections at the end of the tournament.
"He fully deserved it," an American-based scout said. "On some nights, he was the best player out there but because he's not flashy, you don't always notice the little things he does so well. He's a meat and potatoes kind of guy."
Those "little things" are the bits of dirty work needed to create scoring chances. Duke is small at 5-foot-10, but he's got great upper body strength and you typically lose the 1-on-1 battles along the boards with him because he's determined to get possession of the puck. He's not a great skater and could add some more top speed, but he's strong enough on his skates where you can't just push him off the puck without really having to put in the effort to do so.
Duke was a borderline first-round prospect heading into the tournament despite playing at a near-point-per-game average with 48 points in 49 games. Defenseman Luke Hughes and forwards Pastujov and Chaz Lucius look primed to go in the first round, but Duke is still a bit of a wild card. But he's got the support of his teammates, who seem to really think highly of Duke's play, both internationally and domestically. Even though his value is far beyond the scoresheet, he just happens to have around or above a point-per-game at every level he's played at.
“We’ve been playing together for a while and we trust each other,” said Pastujov about playing alongside Duke. “And we’ve built that trust over the years.”
Duke and Pastujov's playing days date back to minor hockey, with the pair finishing 1-2 in scoring on the strong Compuware U-16 team in Detroit. Duke actually led the team with 12 goals and 23 points – Pastujov came second with 18, with a handful of future USNTDP teammates trailing behind. Duke was the captain back then, and someone players like to skate alongside because they know Duke has a team-first mentality.
"Every team wants a Dylan Duke on their roster," an NHL scout said. "He's so well-rounded. He has a Brendan Gallagher vibe to him. Good in his own zone, plays much bigger than his size, relentless attack on every shift. It feels like watching Gallagher back with the Vancouver Giants."
Just watch him in front of the net in any given game. Duke is one of the best net-front forwards in the draft this year and the US coaching staff employed him on the power play and penalty kill throughout the season.
Duke isn't going to be a first-line forward in the NHL, but if you need a middle-six energy guy who can cause fits for the opposition and bang in a couple of goals every now and then, Duke's the man you want in your lineup for any plug-and-play scenario. He's never the weak link on a line because he just does so many things well.
Some scouts believe that if Duke falls past the 35th pick mark, he'll be one of the best value adds of the draft. In a year where teams will be looking for any signs of hope from prospects in a difficult season, watching how Duke has played this season – and capped off with a strong U-18 tournament effort – could be enough for the University of Michigan commit to really help his case to go earlier.
That's going to be one happy team this summer.