Exactly one week ago, asked whether he had seen Pierre-Luc Dubois take the next step in his development, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella had a simple, succinct answer.
“At times,” he said on Aug. 14. “Still needs to be more consistent.”
If Dubois’ play ever becomes as consistent as Tortorella’s responses when someone brings up the third-year center, the 22-year-old will be in business.
Tortorella has frequently felt like the type of coach who sees immense talent and potential in somebody yet does everything in his power to get too far ahead of himself. He’s seemed to want to avoid going overboard in his praise of Dubois, despite his strong play through the past three years. Tortorella thinks he can potentially become a star in the NHL, so there’s no need to crown him just yet.
Take his Stanley Cup Qualifying hat trick as the most recent example. Dubois became the first Blue Jacket in the playoffs to put three goals in the back of the net, doing so during Columbus’ 4-3 overtime win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 6. Cam Atkinson had no problem touting what his teammate had done that night.
“I just think with Luc, if he wants to be a difference-maker, a game-changer, one of the best players I think in the league, he has all the capabilities, all the tools,” Atkinson said. “Tonight, he showed it.”
But the day after the performance, when a reporter asked about the game by calling it a “coming-out party” for Dubois, Tortorella took exception.
“Let's be careful about this coming-out party,” Tortorella said. “This is one game. We get too excited about things too quickly, It's one of the things we're looking for our players, and Luc being one of them, is consistency.”
Tortorella has a point.
“I think he's definitely elevated his game in terms of I think he knows how he has to play to be successful in this league. I think when he's moving his feet and he's hard on pucks, there's not many guys that are better than him in that area of the game.”– Zack Werenski on Pierre-Luc Dubois
As someone who aims to be viewed as one of the league’s top center, Dubois has too often gone through stretches without enough production. He had two 11-game stretches without a goal during his 70-game 2019-20 regular season. As 1st Ohio Battery's Chris Pennington noted a couple of months ago, the Blue Jackets tended to rise when Dubois recorded points and struggle when he was quiet.
But when Dubois is on, he’s dangerous. He took another step in the right direction as the Blue Jackets’ most productive forward through this year’s postseason, leading the team in goals (4) and assists (6) with a shooting percentage of 14.8 and a +3 plus/minus rating.
“It's my third time in the postseason,” Dubois said a week ago. “You learn every time, from the first year losing to Washington then last year against Boston, you learn the pace of the game and everything.”
Inarguably, Columbus needs some offensive help. It got out-shot by double figures in half of its postseason games, and its typical offensive strategy of dumping the puck and chasing didn’t exactly lead to an abundance of clean opportunities for the Blue Jackets. They also only had five players score more than one goal across their 10 postseason games, with nobody finishing more than four goals.
But with Duois, the Blue Jackets have a young forward who just ended his third year in the league and is slowly developing into somebody who Tortorella can trust.
The physical traits are already evident. Seth Jones said he has a “big body,” is “strong as an ox” and has “off-the-charts” puck protection.
“He's a handful for any defensemen, no matter how big you are, how quick you are,” Jones said last week. “He always finds a way to muscle you off, hold you off with one arm and make a play. He matches up against centerman in this league when he's on top of his game.”
He’s learning to pair that physicality with an ever-improving mind. Tortorella said Dubois is “still learning to understand momentum swings in games,” mentioning he hopes this postseason helps him in that area of development.
“I think he's definitely elevated his game in terms of I think he knows how he has to play to be successful in this league,” Zach Werenski said last week. “I think when he's moving his feet and he's hard on pucks, there's not many guys that are better than him in that area of the game. When he gets his feet moving and wants to take pucks to the net, not many guys can stop him, and I think you can kind of see where he’s grown in that area. He's been great for us so far.”
Dubois had at least one point in four of the five games versus the Lightning, recording five assists in the series. Along with his hat trick, he was the most productive forward on the Blue Jackets roster throughout the 10 postseason games.
What’s next? Becoming one of the NHL’s best centers. What happened the last few weeks at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena should aid him in getting closer to that ultimate goal.
“I'm working hard to accomplishing that,” Dubois said in mid-July. “I think I still have a lot to learn and a lot of things I can get better at. But there's no doubt in my mind that I can become that. Now it's just putting in the hours, putting in the work. To be honest, I don't think I'm very far from that, so I've just got to keep working and one day I think I can be there.”