Jets finding success with Dubois at left wing, but return to centre inevitable

Pierre-Luc Dubois had three points including the overtime winner as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-3.

WINNIPEG — Now that the weight has officially been lifted, where does Pierre-Luc Dubois best fit in the Winnipeg Jets lineup?

Jets head coach Paul Maurice is on record saying that Dubois was acquired to be a centreman and doubled down by reinforcing he’s going to be a centreman long-term, but there has to at least be some temptation to keep him at left wing on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

When a guy produces two goals (including the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday) and three points in his return to the lineup after missing four games with a lower body injury, finding a way to delay the inevitable — if only momentarily — simply makes too much sense.

Since the Jets don’t play again until Thursday, when the Montreal Canadiens come to town, there will be a few days for the anticipation to build and for Maurice to mull over the decision.

Maurice has already revealed the next step in this process is to move Dubois to centre between Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, with Paul Stastny jumping up alongside Scheifele and Wheeler.

That’s a great place to put him — eventually.

It’s a trio with exceptional speed and blends the straight-line game of Connor and the east-west creativity of Ehlers.

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You’ve got three really good passers and three guys that can finish around the net.

Throw in the bulldozer-like quality Dubois brings to the table and you can’t help but see enormous potential.

“Yeah, I mean it was evident. He’s a very powerful man,” said Wheeler, who chipped in three assists on Sunday and is up to 17 points in 18 games. “You know what I mean? You see him without his uniform on and just in his shorts and t-shirt. He’s a young man, but in an adult body. He is just tapping into his potential as a player. Some of the little things that he does with the puck, the way that he protects it and the way that he can make guys miss, he’s a pretty special player.”

The reasoning for easing Dubois in on the wing was multifaceted and well thought out.

First and foremost, for a guy who had only played two games in nearly a month because of quarantine and the “muscle” injury that sidelined him for the previous four games, not having the extra layer of responsibility of being at centre was an obvious bonus.

Playing on the wing is not as taxing physically, either.

When looking for a place for a player to have success, throwing him out with a centre that is on a heater also made a lot of sense — and there was Scheifele, extending his point streak to 10 games and his goal streak to five games (giving him 10 markers on the season and moving into a tie with Ehlers for the team lead) on Sunday night.

By plugging in Dubois to play with the long-standing pair of Scheifele and Wheeler, it was simply a matter of finding his comfort zone.

“They’re two really smart players with the puck, without the puck, positionally and (on the) forecheck. There’s not much that both of them can’t do on the ice,” said Dubois. “(Scheifele) and (Wheeler) made it easy for me at times, helped me out when I was making wrong reads and stuff like that but it felt good to get back out there with them.

“You see the chemistry they have and try to read off them, try to be in the right spot.”

Dubois found himself in the right spot late in the second period, sliding into a quiet zone in the slot after Scheifele came up with the puck down low and got it to Wheeler.

When Wheeler found Dubois for a one-timer, the Jets trimmed the deficit to 2-1.

After Scheifele evened the score, there was Dubois feathering a pass over to Neal Pionk for a power-play goal that gave the Jets a 3-2 lead.

And when Elias Pettersson ripped home a rocket during a 6-on-4 situation with 37.7 seconds left in regulation, Dubois was there to provide an exclamation point in overtime, using a stop-and-go move that showed off his acceleration to blow past Brock Boeser and beat Braden Holtby with a shot 27 seconds into the three-on-three action.

He’s been through a lot during the first six weeks of the season, even if he’s been limited to eight games, due to a garden variety of factors.

The false start and “muscle injury” (the words of Dubois when asked if it was a groin issue that kept him out) setback only added to the frustration.

Clearly, this was an important step in the building process for Dubois.

“My first game, it was one of those games where you kind of want to forget about it. You just get your legs back in it, your hands back in it,” said Dubois. “Second game, I felt a bit better and then that injury where I missed some time so tonight to finally get out there and play and then get that nice pass from (Wheeler) and just score, it kind of felt like a weight off my shoulders and then the rest of the game (you want) to keep applying that pressure and keep getting better.

“I mean, my game is still not where I know it can be. I know I can improve on a lot of things.”

Dubois is going to be far too valuable at centre to not be used there primarily, but he seems open to extending the experiment on the wing.

“I have no idea,” said Dubois, asked about what could be on the horizon in terms of his spot in the lineup. “That’s one thing my dad always told me, is if you can play all three forward positions, it can be easy for a coach to put you in the lineup; if it’s on the wing, it’s on the wing, if it’s centre, it’s centre. And in overtime, it’s kind of like a ‘D’, midfielder, defenceman.

“So I think the more positions you can play the easier it is for a team and we have so many good centremen on this team, there’s a lot on the wing, so wherever I have to play, I’ll play.”

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Having this other option in his back pocket when the Jets need a spark is the equivalent of holding a trump card for Maurice.

One of the reasons Dubois was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets was because of his ability to help neutralize the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with his two-way game.

As it turns out, Dubois can also be used in similar fashion to the Edmonton Oilers‘ star centres, combining with Scheifele for an impressive one-two punch on the top line.

Since Dubois is still getting up to speed, it makes perfect sense to give this new look a little longer test drive before moving him into the middle.

It sounds like the thought has definitely crossed the mind of Maurice as well.

“I think they’ve got a lot more. There will come a point and time where they will stop trying to keep him happy and they’ll just play. Once the three of them get to know each other a little bit, they’ll just play,” said Maurice. “They’ll shoot the pucks they’re supposed to shoot. Pass the ones they’re supposed to pass. All of them are exceptional passers. They had a couple of shifts where they hung onto the puck in the offensive zone and I think they’re going to be able to do that at speed.

“So, I don’t have him as a long-term winger, but it’s a good way to introduce a guy into everything and he helps you win while it’s going on. He’s got two veteran guys that he’s playing with. He’s still a young man. I liked it tonight. The next phase will probably be that he gets flipped in and out. So, it won’t be that he permanently goes to another line, as long as it’s going well. But I might flip him and Stastny out a little bit. He’s a centreman and we need him to be a centreman going forward. But we certainly liked it (Sunday).”

Whether he likes it enough to stick with it a bit longer will likely be apparent when the Jets return to the ice for practice on Tuesday.

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