A line born out of desperation is now carrying the Columbus Blue Jackets – and it’s led by a 19-year-old who spent the last year having his top prospect status questioned.
Hockey’s weird like that.
John Tortorella isn’t afraid to mix up the lines, but putting Pierre-Luc Dubois at center wasn’t a part of the plan – not this early, anyways, and not full-time. He had a couple of chances at that position, notably against the Florida Panthers, in a game where his CF% was a staggering 95.45, but that was on the fourth line, with a sheltered matchup against Florida’s bottom unit as well.
This offseason, Dubois was pencilled in by the fans at the third line center spot. Blue Jackets management wanted him to start on the wing, so he did. But thanks to the John Tortorella Vitamix Experience™, he landed on the top line between Artemi Panarin and Josh Anderson. To say he’s hit the ground running would be an understatement.
“You can see he’s getting more and more confident,” said Tortorella after last night’s shootout win. "It makes it really interesting having him in the middle of the ice doing the things he's doing right now."
Sure, he’s playing with some great linemates, but Tortorella has no qualms about putting Dubois out there for heavy minutes now – a huge sign of faith given the initial reluctance to put him in the middle.
Before landing on that line, Dubois was typically playing bottom-six minutes, averaging 12:06 on the ice through his first 20 games. On this line, he’s seen his ice time jump by more than six minutes – averaging 18:07 out there in the last five contests. He’s been a workhorse the last two nights, too, playing his first 20-minute game on Monday and following it up with a 19-minute game last night.
His team-leading CF% has now jumped to 58.9%, with an ever-growing sample size that shows it’s not a fluke. Panarin has the second highest mark on the team – 58.3% – but let’s give those numbers a bit of context.
Among players with 20 or more games played, Dubois and Panarin have the first and fourth highest CF% in the league, respectively. That's right – the Jackets' rookie has the best possession rate in the league.
Anderson’s obviously no slouch, either, leading the team with nine goals and finding the scoresheet in his last four contests.
“It’s really fun, tough to get the puck away from [Anderson],” said Dubois after last night’s game. “He’s really fast, he’s a big reason why we had the puck all the time. He goes to the net, does everything out there."
The trio has certainly meshed. Tortorella says that Dubois still has room to improve, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far.
"He's 19, he's still going to get stronger,” Torts told reporters last night. “He's still gonna learn how to protect pucks better, I think he's improved in that area."
If that happens sooner rather than later, the Blue Jackets may have finally found the top-six center they’ve been looking for.