Building off a breakthrough: Pierre-Luc Dubois

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

June 24, 2016 seemingly marked a rare occurrence: the Edmonton Oilers might have outmaneuvered someone else.

With the third pick of the draft, Jarmo Kekalainen – the first Finnish GM in NHL history – passed on consensus third choice Jesse Puljujarvi (yes, a Finn), instead selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois. Many believed that the Oilers were again lucky in the draft by selecting Puljujarvi at fourth, while some wondered if Kekalainen was going too far to prove that he doesn’t merely favor Finns.

And then they played the games.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

Now, look, it’s more than plausible that there could be more twists and turns in the saga of PLD vs. Puljujarvi. They both turned 20 fairly recently.

So far, though, Dubois flipped the script in a big way, providing a useful bullet point for Kekalainen to use the next time us simpletons doubt his expertise.

An extremely quick learner

During a loaded 2017-18 for rookies, PLD didn’t finish as a Calder finalist, yet he settled for re-writing some Blue Jackets records. His 20 goals and 48 points both set new franchise marks for rookies. He also collected his first career hat trick:

Dubois didn’t just generate some nice point totals for a first-year player.

He skyrocketed up the Blue Jackets’ depth chart, eventually forcing his way to become Columbus’ first-line center. John Tortorella marveled at his rapid growth in January, as Sportsnet’s Luke Fox noted.

“We think we’re smart — the coaches, the managers. We have all these ideas about developing players and worry about too much,” Tortorella said. “He has blown us away as far as how he has handled the situation.

“He has grabbed a hold of it and wants more.”

Beyond collecting nice point totals, the Quebec native generated some resoundingly impressive possession stats for a player of any age. You can plainly see why PLD basically gave Torts & Co. no choice but to deploy him in a prominent role. It stands to reason, then, that Dubois will carry that clout into 2018-19.

Some caveats

There are a few reasons to pump the brakes a bit, at least as far as penciling him in for even bigger things.

To start, there are some areas of improvement, as you’d expect even for a rookie who seemed to skip a few steps in his learning curve. As you might expect, Dubois struggled on draws, winning just 43.8 percent of his 1,052 faceoffs in 2017-18. Such issues sometimes get blown out of proportion, but there’s the worry that key losses in the dot might prompt the occasional demotion.

Dubois also couldn’t ask for a much cushier situation than what he enjoyed as a rookie, even beyond heavy starts in the offensive zone.

Merely glance at his most common even-strength teammates from Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see a who’s who of Blue Jackets players. Artemi Panarin easily leads the pack, also joined by star defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.

Plenty of NHL teams try to spread the wealth by asking prominent forwards to carry their own line, rather than loading up on one or two packed ones. Such a situation could be a drawback to PLD’s meteoric rise: he might be asked to do too much, which may entail fending for himself with lesser linemates.

(Of course, there’s the grim possibility of Panarin skating with a totally new set of teammates after being traded, but let’s not linger on that … at least not in this post.)

More to come?

Those concerns are real, yet there are also some counterpoints for why even bigger things could come for PLD next season.

Most obviously, he’s just 20. While his climb in prominence means that opponents will “gameplan” against him more often, he’s also that much more comfortable with NHL life. These are the years of rapid improvement for more talented players such as Dubois.

Again, he also could receive richer opportunities.

Dubois averaged 1:56 PP TOI per game, less than Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, and Nick Foligno. Maybe he’ll get a boost in that area, or failing that, more than the 16:38 he averaged overall in 2017-18? His massive playoff deployment (23:09 per game!) implies that he has Torts’ trust.

***

One could see Dubois stumble as a sophomore, or take off to even greater heights.

Either way, the big picture is awfully bright for a player who’s more than justified being picked third overall in 2016. For a Blue Jackets team dealing with playoff letdowns and frustrations regarding retaining star players, Dubois’ dazzling development must feel that much more refreshing.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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