Jets’ Dubois set to face Blue Jackets in much-anticipated return

Winnipeg Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois reacts after scoring a goal. (Kyusung Gong/AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Microscopes will be out and measurements are sure to be taken.

Those things come with the territory after the blockbuster trade on Jan. 23, 2021 that included franchise building blocks and now links the Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Thanks to a schedule largely impacted by the pandemic, the two teams will meet for the first time since Jan. 22, 2020 on Wednesday night — which also means it’s the first games for Pierre-Luc Dubois and Jack Roslovic against their former teams.

And while the other headliner of this deal, Patrik Laine, remains sidelined with an oblique injury, this matchup is sure to generate plenty of intrigue — and with it, storylines.

It’s sure to be an emotional return to Nationwide Arena for Dubois, who was chosen third overall by the Blue Jackets back in 2016 and spent the first three-plus seasons of his NHL career with the organization before what became a messy divorce.

It will be interesting to monitor how Dubois is received, especially given the trade demand that ultimately led to his departure.

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Dubois was a centrepiece for the franchise and found himself in the middle of some magical moments for the Blue Jackets, including his post-season hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round in 2020.

There are sure to be some fans that will salute Dubois for his contributions and others that will voice displeasure.

It can be tough to predict how these homecomings are going to go and this one is no different.

“It’s been almost a year now, but I’m expecting some people to be unhappy or disappointed,” said Dubois. “If they’re happy, that’s great. If they’re not happy, booing me, I’ve heard it before.”

Dubois has spoken openly about his appreciation for the Blue Jackets organization and the impact many within it had on shaping his young career, yet he’s never shared the details about what led to the trade request — believing that some things are better left unsaid.

“It’s just a chapter in my career that I was ready for a new challenge, a new chapter, a new environment,” said Dubois. “I know you want a more detailed answer than that, but, yeah. … it wasn’t towards someone, it wasn’t a decision made because of someone or some things, it was just I felt like it was the right time to move on. I’m happy here in Winnipeg. It’s going well, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m going to keep learning. It was just time to move on.

“I don’t like living with regrets. I think everything happens for a reason. My time here was great. In the end it got a little complicated. It got choppy at the end, it is what it is. It happened for a reason. I learned a lot from last year, everything that happened. It’s helped me this year come back stronger mentally and physically.”

Coming back is sure to invoke a lot of different feelings for Dubois, but he’ll do his best to compartmentalize those until the final buzzer sounds.

This isn’t a guy who lacks motivation, so it’s not like this opportunity will revolve around him being more determined to show the Blue Jackets what they’re missing or anything along those lines.

That’s simply not his style. Dubois wants to perform every night, no matter where the stage takes him.

Could it provide a little extra bounce in his step? No question.

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Dubois has been letting his play do the talking this season, blossoming into the power forward the Jets envisioned when pulling the trigger on the trade.

This isn’t just about the offence he’s been able to produce either, which has him on pace to post career highs for goals, assists and points.

It’s about the strong, two-way play he’s provided and the chemistry he’s created with Kyle Connor to give the Jets a decisive one-two punch down the middle with Mark Scheifele.

This is about the potential he’s showing and the ownership he’s taken in being a driver with the Jets.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Jets forward Riley Nash, who spent two seasons playing with Dubois with the Blue Jackets. “He’s had spurts where it hasn’t been going his way and seeing what he went through last year, it was almost the perfect storm in a bad way for him. Having to quarantine, adjusting to a new team, he was injured a couple times, so seeing what he’s doing this year, I’ve seen it for a couple years.

“The one time that stands out was playing in the bubble in Toronto where he was an absolute force. Seeing him carry that on, and take another step forward, is what I would have expected and what a lot of people here would have expected. Now it’s nice to see that he’s showing it in front of all the Winnipeg fans and really showing what they traded for.”

Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen was an assistant under John Tortorella during Dubois’ tenure, so he’s got a good idea of what it will take to try and slow him down.

“Play in the other zone. I think that’s the best way to defend him,” said Larsen. “He’s a big guy, we know him well. He’s 6’3, about 225 and strong. You let him get into a rhythm and hold on to pucks and get below the hashmarks, he’s a lot to handle for any defenceman.”

There’s an additional emotional component to this first trip to Ohio as well for Dubois, who is wearing No. 80 this season to honour the late Matiss Kivlenieks.

The Blue Jackets raised a banner inside Nationwide Arena to honour Kivlenieks and you can be sure Dubois will be thinking of his friend when he looks skyward.

Juicy storylines notwithstanding, the Jets have dropped three consecutive games (0-2-1) and have run into some issues finding the back of the net of late, scoring just four goals during the stretch.

While Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck has allowed two goals or fewer in seven consecutive games, the offensive support has been lacking, even if the shot volume has mostly been plentiful.

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The Jets have made significant strides within the defence structure, but need to get going offensively without sacrificing the improvements made in playing without the puck.

Getting a struggling power play that has dipped from third in the NHL to 13th after a 1-for-18 stretch is one place the Jets could start.

Much like Dubois, Laine has done his part to put a frustrating season behind him, getting off to a strong start of his own prior to the injury, delivering three goals (including two game-winners) and 10 points in nine games.

As someone who enjoys the spotlight, Laine would have had this game circled on the proverbial calendar, but he will now have to wait for the March 25 return to Winnipeg.

Roslovic is coming off his most productive game of the new season, pumping home his first two goals of the season in Monday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres.

While he was never just a throw-in, Roslovic wasn’t the centrepiece of the high-profile trade, so it was natural that eyebrows were raised when he was the most productive player in the deal last season.

Roslovic flourished with the move to his hometown team, relishing the additional ice time and responsibility to notch 12 goals and 34 points in 44 games while averaging nearly 17 minutes per game.

“It’s been amazing. Being home, seeing family, being able to live in a comfortable environment and to be able to play in front of people I didn’t get to a lot,” said Roslovic. “With that being said I also tell people that I do miss the new family part of going to a different city, and Winnipeg did feel like that, and going back to see people I still talk to.”

Things haven’t gone quite as smoothly this year.

With Roslovic’s ice time down nearly five minutes per game, there’s been a noticeable dip in his offensive numbers as well, with seven points in 16 games while playing mostly third and fourth-line minutes.

Roslovic always believed he could have done more for the Jets if given more of an opportunity, while the Jets felt more consistency was required before a move up the depth chart was warranted.

That impasse is part of what led to the change of scenery.

The shift in address is seemingly working out for all parties and while it’s still too early to fully determine who won the trade, it’s always going to be part of the narrative and backdrop as long as the principles are part of these respective organizations.

Sizing things up in the moment is always part of the fun when moves like this are made and the latest opportunity to do so is right around the corner.

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