Jets need Dubois to find his form to have success vs. Oilers

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WINNIPEG - The bubble version of Pierre-Luc Dubois has been mostly missing in action.

More of a mythological figure than a dominant force with any frequency since joining the Winnipeg Jets in the blockbuster deal that sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Make no mistake, there have been glimpses — including a pair of overtime winners and three-point outings — for Dubois, who was acquired to provide the long-term solution at second-line centre for the Jets.

But Dubois never fully found his comfort zone with the Jets, who open the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday against the Edmonton Oilers.

It would be natural that the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Blue Jackets — which included a very public trade request — would weigh heavily on Dubois, who was chosen third overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Following a 14-day quarantine, Dubois has basically been playing catch-up, and suffering an undisclosed lower-body injury in just his second game and missing four more only made that process more difficult for him. He finished his Jets portion of the season with eight goals and 20 points in 41 games.

Dubois played all three forward positions and had a revolving door of linemates, bouncing between the top unit, the checking line and everywhere in between. Chemistry has been tough to come by, despite numerous efforts to see who Dubois might fit best with.

To this point, the high-volume blender usage has not had the desired effect.

The pressure on Dubois has been palpable and that comes with the territory when a player is involved in a deal of this magnitude.

This isn’t about the numbers, though those haven’t been pretty either.

Since scoring a pair of goals against the Ottawa Senators on April 5, Dubois hasn’t dented the twine.

It’s a slump that lasted 17 games.

With only four assists during that stretch — including none in the final nine and just one in the final 12 — it’s clear Dubois is lacking confidence when it comes to his offensive game.

There have been times when Dubois was a bit too deferential to his linemates and other situations where his internal frustration has come to the surface.

This is an individual who holds himself to a high standard and knows that he has more to give.

Even when Dubois was playing well he was always quick to say he had another gear to find or a level to reach.

Perhaps nobody on the Jets roster is looking forward to the reset that the post-season can provide for a player than Dubois, who has some recent history that he’ll be looking to draw on.

This isn’t limited to his Game 3 hat trick (including the overtime winner) against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 of the qualifying round last August, though that impressive performance is top of mind for many (and for good reason).

Dubois was also part of the Blue Jackets team that swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019 and pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning club to six games last August.

With eight goals and 19 points in 26 playoff games, Dubois is no stranger to post-season production.

Although Dubois didn’t finish the regular-season finale against the Maple Leafs on Friday night, Jets head coach Paul Maurice said that both he and Paul Stastny would practice with the Jets before departing for Edmonton and be available for Game 1.

During the final week of the regular season, Maurice moved Dubois back from centre to right wing.

Where Dubois ultimately ends up in the Jets lineup could depend on the status of Nikolaj Ehlers, who remains questionable for Game 1, despite taking part in Friday’s morning skate in a non-contact jersey.

If he’s on top of his game, Dubois has the ability to make a massive impact, producing some offence while making life difficult for an opposing centre — just like he did at times last August against Auston Matthews and John Tavares.

Right now, it probably makes sense to keep Dubois on the wing in an effort to help lighten the load in terms of responsibilities.

Having a veteran like Stastny on hand to slide into the second-line centre role is a luxury many teams don’t have.

Another option could be to place Dubois on a line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, which would leave Andrew Copp with Stastny and Ehlers — a trio that enjoyed success earlier this season.

That wouldn’t be a demotion either, since the Lowry line will be responsible for trying to contain the Oilers' elite centre duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Maurice seemed to pour some cold water on the theory when the subject was raised earlier this week.

“That’s a possibility. I never felt that was a checking role that he had in the playoffs,” Maurice said. “It wasn’t a shut down, it was just head-to-head. I’m not sold on that quite yet. We’re going to start on the road for two, so how your checking line is structured isn’t maybe most important.

“The other theory is it’s really important because you need two lines on the road, whereas at home you only need one and a half — if that makes sense to you, you can go to a harder match at home than you can on the road. I just want to see him on the right, see what he can generate on the right side — Pierre-Luc — and that will tell us where we put him if we have (Ehlers) in or out.”

Given the time of season, perhaps Maurice was just keeping his cards close to the vest and didn’t want to tip his hand.

Some of it is also related to the health of Ehlers, who should provide an immediate boost once he returns.

It’s also possible the Jets believe Dubois is on the verge of getting things turned around and that he’ll find a way to elevate his level of play when the games matter most.

The Jets haven’t soured on Dubois, they fully believe in his ability to be a dominant centre for years to come — even if it didn’t happen as quickly as many suspected it would.

It’s also become readily apparent that given the slim margin of error the Jets are already dealing with in going head-to-head with the Oilers, they’re going to need a contribution from Dubois in order to advance beyond the opening round.

The sooner Dubois can channel his optimal performance level, the better that opportunity will become.

It’s also the best way for Dubois to start taking the requisite steps required to put a trying regular season behind him.

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