Early in the second period of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ opener Friday at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Dallas Stars defenseman Gavin Bayreuther shot the puck at CBJ goalie Matiss Kivlenieks after the whistle.
It wasn’t that long after the play, but it was long enough for Pierre-Luc Dubois.
The Blue Jackets’ No. 1 pick and third overall choice in the 2016 draft, Dubois immediately took umbrage, delivering a shove to the Stars blueliner. A bit of a scrum ensued, and both Dubois and Bayreuther ended up spending two minutes apiece in the penalty box.
It might be a bit of a stretch to say that single incident shows a difference between the Dubois of one year ago vs. the Dubois of today.
“I think any guy needs to step up and defend the goalie a little bit,” Dubois said the next day. “I think anybody in that situation should just tell him not to do that again – in different words.”
Yet there’s no disputing the fact the forward seems to be playing and acting, well, about a year older than he did one year ago in Traverse City. Dubois – who has three goals in three games on the top line – appears to have embraced a leadership role on this year’s Traverse squad, one perhaps part and parcel of what is expected out of someone taken as high in the draft as the Quebec native.
“Last year, I wanted to learn, but I took kind of a passenger seat a little too much,” he said. “This year, I want to be in the driver’s seat. I want to lead the team. I want to help the guys.”
Or, as Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark said this summer, “He’s flipped that mindset, ‘I’m done with junior (hockey). I’m going to play in the NHL this year.’”
It would seem Dubois would have a chance to make that a reality. A year ago, coming off a 42-goal, 99-point season with Cape Breton of the QMJHL, he joined the Blue Jackets with plenty of hype after being chosen behind only Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine and – surprisingly to many – ahead of Jesse Puljujarvi.
But Dubois didn’t make the team out of fall camp and instead returned to junior hockey. Any chance he’d make his Columbus debut during the season went by the wayside when the Blue Jackets got off to a hot start, and Dubois had just six goals in his first 20 games with the Screaming Eagles.
A midseason trade to Blainville-Boisbriand seemed to rejuvenate Dubois, though, and he ended up with a 15-22-37 line in 28 regular-season games with the Armada. He also played on the Canadian team that took the United States to a shootout in the final of the World Juniors and then led the Armada to the finals of the QMJHL playoffs.
Looking back, Dubois admits it was a hectic year, starting with a summer in which – as the No. 3 overall pick in the raft – his training routine was thrown off by constant travel and commitments.
There was also living with the fact he was no longer just Pierre-Luc Dubois, becoming “Pierre-Luc Dubois, No. 3 overall pick in the NHL draft” – and all that comes with it – when he was selected by Columbus.
“I think it takes some getting used to,” he said. “Some guys, they’re 15, people already start talking about them. Nobody really started talking about me until I was 17. The beginning of my draft year, I was ranked like 28 or 30.
“It was a lot of new things for me, but the past year, I learned a lot. I think I’m a lot more mature from the past experiences, just getting used to having people looking at you, the expectations, things like that. The only expectations I have, I’m a guy that wants to win, who wants to play well. I don’t really listen to other people around me.”
Now more comfortable in his situation and coming off a consistent offseason of workouts, Dubois can see the path to playing time for the Blue Jackets. Though he’s just 19, Dubois is solidly built at 6-2, 215, and he will have every chance to make the team at center after the offseason departures of William Karlsson and Sam Gagner and the uncertain injury status of Brandon Dubinsky.
He can also play wing if need be, giving Dubois and the team flexibility in how he can be used.
“He can play wing because he does very well on the boards,” Clark said. “We’ve seen at different times of the year where he would double shift and they would throw him on the wing. What’s great about him is seeing him the last month of the year in the playoffs, being a third overall pick, he’s got all that third overall pick talent and skill, but he was playing grinding-style, get-in-your-face hockey. It’s great because he’ll be so versatile in the NHL. He can play wherever there’s a spot for him.”
For his part, Dubois says he’s ready to go when training camp starts later this week.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I’m excited to get this camp going. I’m excited for everything ahead. I’m really happy where I am right now.”