The No. 8 Michigan hockey team has jumbled around almost everything this season. The Wolverines have constantly shuffled lines and pairings, forcing nearly every player into different roles at different times.
But there’s one constant. No matter who’s on the ice, Dylan Duke’s role doesn’t change — the sophomore forward is always at the net front.
It’s not the most glorious of roles. Where his teammates shine with dazzling dekes or scorching snipes, Duke typically makes his impact by getting down in the dirty areas and sacrificing his body in hopes of tipping a puck into the goal.
Take his goal in Michigan’s win over then-No. 12 Michigan State on Dec. 10. On the power play, sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes slapped a one-timer. The puck appeared to be headed past the net — until it hit Duke just above the hand and bounced in.
“What he put in was just standing there and taking a one timer that was probably five feet wide off his ribs,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said postgame. “When you stand there good things happen, and he’s always there.”
So no, that goal maybe didn’t feel so glorious when he had to deal with the lasting impact of taking a Luke Hughes slapshot directly to the arm — even if he smiled as he celebrated. With 12 goals through 22 games, though, it doesn’t matter how glorious it is. Duke makes it work.
And because Duke’s role is so defined, he’s become incredibly consistent in it. As one-third of the Wolverines’ highest-scoring line, Duke has established himself as a scoring mainstay in an explosive yet often volatile offense.
In some of Michigan’s lowest moments, Duke has still found his place: Just outside the crease, tipping pucks into the mesh.
When the Wolverines took on No. 2 Minnesota with a greatly undermanned roster on Nov. 17 and 18, the depleted offense managed just five goals across the two games. But Duke scored four of those goals, a lone bright spot in an especially rough week for Michigan.
When the Wolverines struggled mightily en route to a 7-2 home blowout against then-No. 8 Ohio State on Jan. 13, not much went right. But Duke found his usual home and banged in Michigan’s only two goals of the night, yet again one of the only positives in a tough loss.
As junior defenseman Jacob Truscott sullenly reflected on the defeat, he still acknowledged Duke’s individual success.
“(Duke) always finds a way in front of the net,” Truscott said. “He had a couple of goals, and that’s what we need out of him. He did a good job today, but we need more of that overall.”
For a multitude of reasons, Truscott’s words ring true. Yes, Duke can’t be the only thing working for Michigan to win games. Still, Duke finding his way to the front of the net without fail — just as Truscott mentioned — is inestimably valuable to the Wolverines.
“We’ve talked about how good Duke is at the net front,” Naurato said Tuesday. “He scores goals in that area. He’s a goal scorer. … He’s on pace for 20 goals, that’s big time. So we need him to keep going.”
Obviously, Michigan strongly prefers to back up Duke’s impressive performances with better team-wide play. But as Duke continues to, quite literally, put himself in position to put the puck between the pipes, that impressive play shouldn’t waver too much regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
Because as everything else moves around him, Duke will always find his way back to his position right at the net front.