Goals in hockey aren’t like home runs in baseball or touchdowns in football. When pucks go into the net, there exists an element of pure chance that’s not as present in almost any other sport.
That’s why it can often be challenging to glean too much from them — goals only tell part of the story. But for Dexter Dancs last season, they told more than enough.
A seven-goal, 17-point sophomore campaign gave way to a disappointing junior season in which Dancs only found the net once. Dancs wasn’t alone in his struggles, as Michigan’s entire offense plummeted from 4.76 goals per game in 2015-16 to just 2.63 last year.
“It’s no secret I haven’t had the best three years here,” Dancs admitted to the Detroit Free Press at Michigan’s media day in September. “(I) haven’t played as well as I’ve wanted to or the coaching staff wanted me to.”
During the offseason, Dancs knew what he needed to improve upon to put the sour taste of his junior year behind him, so the North Vancouver, B.C. native went back home, something he hadn’t done in any prior offseason. His training focus changed, too. For the first time, he worked primarily on his flexibility and mobility on the ice.
“I worked with a guy back home and my body feels a lot different than it did the last few years,” Dancs said. “I feel good — not necessarily faster, but I just feel stronger in my skates and my edges and things like that, so I think it’s been big for me.
“Last year I would get the puck in my own end and guys would catch me, or I would get it in the corner, I’d spin off a defender and get caught. This year I just feel better.”
At the Wolverines’ media day, coach Mel Pearson stated that Dancs had the potential to be an “x-factor,” calling him a major key towards Michigan having success. And through the first two months of the season, a more physically fit Dancs has proven him correct.
In just 16 games, Dancs has already surpassed his scoring output from last season, with five goals and eight assists comprising his 13 points — good for third on the team. With this success, he has asserted himself on Michigan’s top line alongside senior Tony Calderone and forward Cooper Marody, anchoring the Wolverines’ 15th-ranked scoring offense.
While Marody’s total of 1.5 points per game is tied for fourth in the country, as are Calderone’s 13 goals, the Wolverines’ veteran triumvirate has owed its success just as heavily to the contributions of Dancs. His size, strength and hard-nosed play in physical situations provides space for Michigan’s other playmakers. As Pearson stated after a victory over Minnesota in November, Dancs gives the line “a little bit of everything.”
“He’s always been a hard worker, but I think all around the ice he’s doing a lot of good things,” Marody said. “In practice, he’s always pretty consistent on a daily basis and he’s working really hard — getting pucks, he’s using his shot, he’s using his big body to take it to the net.”
It’s also telling toward the line’s chemistry and cohesiveness as a unit that Calderone was quick to credit his linemates for his hat trick against Michigan State on Thursday, saying that they “made it easy” for him.
“Dex, he’s a workhorse,” Calderone said. “He gets into the dirty areas, gets the puck, gives it to Coop, who’s an all-around great passer, great with the puck and shooting, so we’ve got three guys that complement each other well.”
While Marody gave praise to Dancs’ work ethic, he also put forth experience and confidence as reasons why Dancs is enjoying the best season of his career.
“As a senior, you’ve had a lot of years to know how you have to play on a daily basis, know how to play in the games,” Marody said. “He’s been here for four years, worked hard four years and sometimes it just comes with time. You get more mature, you learn more things about the game, you learn more things about your game, what it takes to have success and I think he’s learned that and he’s been very good so far.”
But despite this praise from teammates and coaches, Dancs was more lukewarm in his evaluation of his play this season, noting his streakiness — 11 of his 13 points came during an eight-game stretch from Oct. 27 to Nov. 17.
With three weeks until Michigan takes the ice again, against Bowling Green in the Great Lakes Invitational, Dancs hopes to develop that consistency.
“The last five or six games I haven’t really been happy with my game,” Dancs said. “It’s good that we have the 20 days off so I can kind of look back on it and see what made me successful and bring that to the second half of the season.”
After a summer dedicated to improving his game and redeeming himself after a self-professed unexceptional three years, Dancs has blossomed into not just an “x-factor” for the Wolverines, as Pearson had hoped, but a major force for one of the more surprising offenses in the country.
And while there’s plenty of hard work involved, maybe it’s as simple as pucks finally going into the net.