Trying to build a hockey lineup is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of just throwing the best players together on the top line, it’s all about finding the pieces that fit together in order to maximize each player and line’s potential.
It’s a delicate puzzle, one that Michigan coach Brandon Naurato has tinkered with all season long. But even as he’s moved around nearly every piece trying to find the perfect fit, two have been glued together all year long: sophomore forwards Dylan Duke and Mackie Samoskevich.
“(Samoskevich) likes to carry the puck in, and Duke doesn’t need to,” Naurato said Monday. “Duke’s always at the net, and Samo likes to shoot. So it works out well for both of them.”
As Naurato alludes to, Samoskevich and Duke are a match made in heaven. Samoskevich’s NHL-level shot is his bread and butter, and he can fire it from anywhere in the offensive zone. As hard as it is for opposing goaltenders to stop him with a clean slot in front, it’s even harder with Duke constantly at the net ready to screen the goalie’s vision, tip the shot in or clean up the rebound.
After more than a year of playing on the same line, chemistry comes naturally to the pair. But while Samoskevich and Duke have occupied the wings together, the center between them has changed on multiple occasions. Last year, it was now-AHLer Johnny Beecher. For the first half of this season, freshman forward Adam Fantilli took up that mantle.
With Fantilli, the pair turned into a fearsome triumvirate, scoring 33 combined goals through the first 20 games of the season. But looking to create more scoring throughout the line sheet, Naurato switched Fantilli off Samoskevich and Duke’s line, replacing him with freshman forward T.J. Hughes.
And even without the production that Fantilli — a projected top-three draft pick — brings to the table, the Samoskevich–Hughes–Duke line hasn’t skipped a beat. That’s largely due to the strong foundation that Samoskevich and Duke have built for Hughes to slot right into.
“T.J.’s super smart,” Naurato said. “So you have to put him with other smart players. I think Duker’s IQ is really high and I think Samo’s is too. They work well together when they’re working.”
More than any other aspect of his game, Hughes’ hockey intelligence shines through. He’s constantly looking to make the extra pass, always willing to trade an OK chance to facilitate a great one. And while he’s a natural goal scorer, ranking fourth on the Wolverines with 13, he’s never one to take away from his linemates with selfish play.
As a result, while Samoskevich and Duke have seemed to make it work with whoever’s playing between them, Hughes has broken into that role and developed strong chemistry with the pair. That connection is evident in any situation, whether that’s deep in the offensive zone or attempting to control possesion from the faceoff circle — where Hughes’ 54.7% success rate leads Michigan’s consistent centers.
“Those guys have a lot of chemistry, and they’re all super skilled,” freshman defenseman Seamus Casey said Tuesday. “Dylan and Mackie, they really get in there and they help a lot on draws.”
Given that the Wolverines consider faceoff wins a product of all five skaters on the ice, of course that chemistry is important. So the fact that Hughes’ numbers lead the team is not just a testament to his own prowess on the draw, but the way that Samoskevich and Duke complement him as well.
So as Michigan continues trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle that is its line sheet, Samoskevich and Duke’s chemistry makes it an easy place to start building from. And with Hughes between them, it’s just another perfect fit.