He’s the youngest player on one of the youngest teams in the NHL, so there was always going to be a learning curve for 19-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois. Everyone in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization knew that. But when coach John Tortorella brought Dubois in for a little career counselling after the first month of the season, he figured it was time to speed up the process a little.
So it was when Tortorella and Dubois sat down for a chat after the first 12 games of the season. Dubois had scored in his NHL debut but produced nothing offensively in the next 11 games. Tortorella doesn’t mince words, we all know that, and his message is always crystal clear. It was one that was heard and heeded by Dubois, who started playing the way he was capable of and, as a result, has emerged as the player who could be the answer to the team’s problems down the middle. The Blue Jackets selected Gilbert Brule five picks before Anze Kopitar in the 2005 draft. Whoops. More than a decade later, the Blue Jackets are hoping they have finally found their Kopitar.
After the chat with Tortorella, Dubois scored nine goals and 21 points in his next 32 games, not the kind of numbers that will vault him into the Calder Trophy conversation, but ones that could provide the foundation for a solid 40-50 point season. And if he keeps gaining his coach’s trust and remains on the team’s top line between Artemi Panarin and Josh Anderson, he should be able to add to those totals down the stretch. “I knew it was going to take a little while to get used to the game,” Dubois said. “Everywhere I’ve been, ever since I was 10, it always took me a while to get used to the level. It’s a big jump from junior – new role, new teammates, new system – but once I got the chance, I really took advantage of it.”
To say that Dubois, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, had something of a deer-in-the-headlights complex during his first training camp would not be an overstatement. Tortorella saw a young player who was overwhelmed, so much so that he had to check with team management to make sure that was the kid they had just picked third overall. But in everything to his physique to his body language to his swagger, so much was different this year. Tortorella said that at the beginning of the season he was concerned about putting Dubois in a situation he wasn’t prepared to accept and contemplated playing Dubois at the wing. But that has kind of gone out the window with Alexander Wennberg unproductive and injured. Brandon Dubinsky was never going to fill that No. 1 center role, and he was also hurt, so the depth at center took a hit. It's a good thing Dubois stayed in the middle and started to produce. “We think we’re so smart, the coaches, the managers,” Tortorella said. “We have all these ideas about developing players, and we worry too much. He has blown us away with how he has handled the situation. He’s grabbed a hold of it and wants more.”
Dubois is a confident young man to be sure. He speaks easily and confidently in English and French. He has two tattoos on his right arm as a tribute to his grandfather, Mike McClure, who raced Harley Davidson motorcycles in Atlanta. Dubois’ father, Eric, met his wife, Jill McClure, when he was playing in the International League for the Atlanta Knights, and the young Dubois took his first skate strides in Germany when his father, now an assistant coach with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, was playing there.
There was never any doubt which players were going to go Nos. 1 and 2 in 2016 with Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine at the top of the draft board. Most teams had Jesse Puljujarvi No. 3 on their lists, but the Blue Jackets instead gambled on Dubois. It’s clear he has had a better NHL career to this point, but it’s still far too early to make a declaration. Heck, Matthew Tkachuk went sixth, immediately followed by Clayton Keller, with Mikhail Sergachev taken two picks later. It will take more than a half-season to sort all this out.
The Blue Jackets are pretty happy with the way things have gone and so is Dubois. Columbus is firmly ensconced as a playoff contender, and Dubois continues to find his way as a player. “He’s not afraid of anything,” Tortorella said. “He’s not afraid of the moment.”
Captain Nick Foligno, one of the veterans who leads the way for this group, has helped mentor Dubois and is impressed with the advances he has made in one season. Foligno also noticed a much bigger, stronger and more confident player in training camp. “He’s a big body, skates well and holds onto pucks,” Foligno said. “When he does that for us, he’s a dangerous player.”
It has certainly helped Dubois that so many players on the team fall somewhere near his age. Even some of Columbus’ younger players – Seth Jones and Zach Werenski – have some legitimate NHL miles on them. And sometimes it’s easy to forget Panarin is just 26. “It’s easier maybe to create relationships with guys who not so long ago were in junior just like you,” Dubois said. “It’s fun.”