When the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, it's safe to say that this year's version of the center is the player they had in mind.
In his third season, Dubois seems to have taken his game to a new level. After being held off the scoresheet in the first two games of the season, the 21-year-old has produced 5-2-7 in the past nine games. Playing without Artemi Panarin has forced (allowed?) him to carry the puck more, and while there was some consternation regarding whether that would be a positive development, the early indications suggest he's more than up for the task.
Dubois blends sturdy skating, fearlessness, moxie, and soft hands with a 6-foot-3 frame. He's gotten more and more confident going up against elite centers and is very well aware that he's a load to handle in the corners. We broke down the film to show you what's allowed Dubois to see so much success in the early goings of the young season:
In this first clip against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dubois puts Auston Matthews in a bad spot by establishing body position against him (0:07). Matthews has to go through Dubois to get to the puck, and the puck has a head start to the net. As Matthews is unable to prevent Dubois from taking it to the net, he's at a clear disadvantage. The replay at 0:31 gives us a great view. The finish is world-class, a far-corner tuck that beats Freddie Andersen to his post.
The next play is a bit of a copout as it's easier to take it to the net on the power play, but it's nonetheless nice to see Dubois take the puck to the net on a struggling power play. (Note: his goal was actually scored as time expired, but it was still a "man advantage", numerically speaking.)
At 0:22, Seth Jones baits Robert Hagg (#8) into playing the shot. As soon as Jones sees this, he dumps the puck off to Dubois, who now has a miniature 2v1 with Alexander Wennberg as #13 Kevin Hayes is late coming back to help his defense.
Dubois recognizes he'll have time to take the puck to the net at 0:23 and immediately drives his shoulder towards the net. At 0:24, he makes a quick step into the middle of the ice to give him a shooting angle, then he beats Brian Elliott to the blocker side.
The first two videos show his prowess in attacking the net and shielding the puck, but both were from a relative stand-still. In the following videos, we'll show how he's equally effective at protecting the puck at full speed, and how he's able to use his massive reach to his advantage:
Perhaps my favorite goal Dubois has scored this year came against the Carolina Hurricanes. It shows a lot of elements, including his thought process, puck protection skills, and finishing ability.
At the 0:10 mark, the puck has been turned over and immediately heads up the ice. Gus Nyquist, an excellent passer, sees that and hits Dubois perfectly in stride at 0:11. From there, Dubois places a bet with Brock McGinn, a 6-foot winger who's been tasked with the impossible: somehow prevent a 6-foot-3 freight train from getting to his spot. From 0:11-0:14, Dubois is setting the stage. He knows that if he does a quick fake to the forehand, he can go back to his backhand and beat the goalie there. If he goes too early, it'll give the goalie time to reset. This quick dribble to the forehand gives him the backhand, and he's able to elevate over the goalie's pad.
Against the Anaheim Ducks, Dubois scored on a seemingly innocuous play, beating Ryan Miller from a near-impossible angle. But as easy as it is to be mesmerized by the shot, the goal is really made at 0:18, when Dubois shields the puck from Josh Manson (#42) with his right leg. In doing so, he prevents Manson from getting his stick on the puck. His size allows him to basically put any puck out of reach, and his strength allowed him to beat an NHL defenseman, who played Dubois about as well as you could ask.
Manson won't have any sympathy for Dubois' next victim, Dublin native Connor Murphy. The Blackhawks' defenseman (#5) thought he was in great shape, with his body in between Dubois and the puck (0:09). Unfortunately for him, he didn't take into consideration the reach of Dubois, who was able to poke it by him. Murphy wasn't the only Blackhawks' player victimized by Dubois' reach, as Robin Lehner, too, seemed to be caught by surprise (0:11). It's probably only a matter of time before the whole NHL knows to be more careful around Dubois...
Lastly, let's revisit Cam Atkinson's OT winner from last week. Atkinson gets the goal, but Dubois does all the leg-work. Dubois receives the stretch pass from Jones (0:08), and rookie Martin Necas (#88) is tasked with keeping the Blue Jackets' center from a dangerous point on the ice.
Suffice it to say, he struggles. Necas has to respect Dubois' reach and is well-positioned to give Dubois the outside of the rink. This was the appropriate read. The problem is: Dubois is a tank, and Necas isn't able to stop him. Willing his way to the net, Dubois has now created a 2-on-1 with Atkinson. At 0:12, the game has already been decided. Jake Gardiner (#51) doesn't take away the back-door pass with his (terrible?) slide, and it's effectively a 2-on-0. Atkinson taps it home, but this play is made by Dubois.
Much has been made about the key departures in the off-season, but if Dubois can continue to progress into a sure-fire, first-line center, the future is bright in Columbus.
All videos courtesy of SpecmenceCBJ. You can check out the YouTube channel here.