TORONTO – The shocker of the 2016 NHL Draft has become the shocker of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2017-18 season — in the best way possible.
Flash back to June 24, 2016 in Buffalo. Picking in the No. 3 slot, the league’s only Finnish general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, informed by his Finnish director of amateur scouting, Ville Siren, decided to pass on the most highly touted prospect remaining on the board — a powerful Finnish wing named Jesse Puljujarvi — and take Quebecois centre Pierre-Luc Dubois instead.
The decision sent a ripple across the floor, and Edmonton happily pounced on Puljujarvi at No. 4.
Flash ahead 18 months later. Watching Dubious, the youngest player on the league’s youngest roster, thrive as a first-line centre, it’s safe to say Columbus isn’t exactly suffering buyer’s remorse.
“It shows you how smart these guys [in management] are and what they see in these players. Then you get to go to work with them and you realize how good they are at such a young age,” said captain Nick Foligno after the Jackets stunned the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 3-2 overtime victory Monday and leapt to second in a claustrophobic Metropolitan race.
“I always say you have to learn on the fly in this league, and [Dubois] has done a great job of that. He’s very intuitive and asks a lot of questions.
“He’s a big body, skates well and holds onto pucks. When he does that for us, he’s a dangerous player.”
Down 2-0, Foligno reversed momentum with his crease-crashing deflection past Frederik Andersen with just 4:35 remaining in regulation. Dubois forced OT a couple shifts later, snapping home a nice Seth Jones feed after a Morgan Rielly turnover. Artemi Panarin capped off the comeback in 3-on-3 action.
“That’s a good win for us as far as some of the crap we’ve been going through,” said coach John Tortorella, a reference to Columbus’s crowded sick bay.
Core forwards Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky are all sidelined, and Sonny Milano left Monday’s victory with an undisclosed injury.
Unable to stifle his post-game smile after 22 minutes of work and winning most of his draws, Dubois called it “a really fun night.” Thankfully for Columbus, the 19-year-old has had a boatload of those this season.
Wennberg was handed a shot to run with the No. 1 centre role after signing a $29.4-million, six-year contract in the summer but scored just four goals before his back injury. What’s happening in Vegas is William Karlsson excelling as the Golden Knights’ top pivot after being unprotected by Columbus.
So Dubois’s rapid maturation and impressive rookie production (10 goals and 22 points) make the organization look good, even if it didn’t see this coming.
Tortorella says Dubois was so “overwhelmed” in his first training camp in 2016, the coach couldn’t find him on the ice. They returned the player back to the QMJHL. Easy call.
Dubois, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, starred for Canada at the 2017 world juniors but agonized over missing a couple prime chances to score in the gold medal overtime period against the Americans.
The kid cheered Friday as Canada’s juniors avenged his silver medal from a year ago.
“I was so happy for guys like [Dillon] Dube and [Carter] Hart. We went through heartbreak a year ago losing that shootout,” Dubois said. “It was one of the hardest moments of my career. To see those guys celebrate meant so much.”
Foligno says Dubois arrived at this season’s camp changed. He was determined to stick. Jones calls the teenager one of the club’s most consistent players, period.
Tortorella reveals that the Jackets’ brain trust was nervous about playing Dubois up the middle. Too much responsibility for the first year of his entry deal. Better to let him grow comfortable on the wing, the way Tyler Seguin or Dylan Larkin began their pro careers.
“I was going to ease him in, keep him at wing. We had discussions during the summer just worried about too much responsibility at the centre-ice position for a young kid,” said Tortorella, who purposely double-shifted the Panarin-Dubois-Anderson line with Monday’s game in the balance.
“He is not afraid of anything. He was checked hard tonight by [Nazem] Kadri’s line. He’s not afraid of the moment.”
In recent weeks, the Jackets have seen Dubois charge head-to-head with the opposition’s best, backcheck hard in the D-zone, ease breakouts, and keep cycles alive.
“We think we’re smart — the coaches, the managers. We have all these ideas about developing players and worry about too much,” Tortorella says. “He has blown us away as far as how he has handled the situation.
“He has grabbed a hold of it and wants more.”