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Building off a breakthrough: Pierre-Luc Dubois

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.

Boeser gets 3-year, $17.6 million bridge deal with Canucks

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Big news for the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night as they announced a three-year deal for restricted free agent forward Brock Boeser.

It is a short-term bridge deal for the talented winger and will pay him $5.875 million per season.

Salary cap space has quickly become an issue for the Canucks this summer after more big spending on veteran depth players, but they were still able to come to terms on a deal with one of their most important players.

“We’re very pleased to have Brock re-sign,” said general manager Jim Benning in a statement released by the team. “He’s a talented player, a key contributor to our offense and an important part of our team’s future. We look forward to having Brock join the team in preparation for the upcoming season.”

The 22-year-old Boeser has 59 goals and 116 total points in 140 career games.

He was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy during the 2017-18 season and followed that up with a tremendous sophomore performance this past season. The only negative so far is that he has had terrible injury luck, missing 33 games over his first two full years in the league. When healthy he is one of the team’s top players, one of the best young players in the league, and along with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes will be a significant part of the team’s foundation for the foreseeable future.

MORE:
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

New Seattle NHL arena remains on schedule for summer of 2021

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SEATTLE (AP) — The arena for Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise remains on track to open sometime in the summer of 2021.

Construction officials said Monday that the entire bowl of the former KeyArena has been demolished and excavation work is ongoing. Officials hope to begin digging down 15 feet from the current floor by year’s end and to spend most of 2020 constructing the new seating bowl from the bottom up.

Ken Johnsen, who is overseeing the construction project for Oak View Group and the NHL franchise, says the most challenge part so far has been putting in supports to take on the weight of the 44 million-pound roof, which is staying in place. The new arena is being built under the roof, which has historical landmark status.

Johnsen says the budget for the project remains around $930 million.

Previewing the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Better or worse: If we are comparing the Wild right now to where they were at the beginning of the 2018-19 season it would be difficult to argue that they are better following the in-season trades of Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle. But if we are comparing them to where they were at the end of the 2018-19 season they might be a little better. Mats Zuccarello is another big-money player on the wrong side of 30, but he is still good. Mikko Koivu and Matthew Dumba are returning after missing significant portions of the 2018-19 season. There is also some potential with younger players to maybe take a step forward. The important question is whether or not those improvements are enough to get them back in the playoffs and help them return to contention in the Western Conference.

Strengths: The top half of their defense is really good with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Dumba leading the way. Suter is the biggest name and the one that gets most of the attention because he never seems to leave the ice, but don’t overlook the other two. Spurgeon just signed a seven-year contract extension to remain with the team and has been a criminally underrated player for most of his career. Dumba, meanwhile, brings a ton of offensive potential from the blue line and was in the middle of a breakout season until an injury sustained in a fight sidelined him for most of the season. Behind them they have an above average goalie in Devan Dubnyk serving as the last line of defense. When he is on his game, he can carry the team and has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since joining the team in them middle of the 2014-15 season.

Weaknesses: The Wild have a lot of really good veteran players and some young players that could become really good players. What they are lacking is great players. They don’t really have anyone that can be a difference-making, impact player that puts the team on their back for a game (or a stretch of games) and carries it. That kind of limits what your team’s ceiling is among the league’s hierarchy of contenders. The other concern is the age of the core. With Spurgeon now re-signed, they now have six players over the age of 30 signed for at least two more seasons. Several of those players are signed beyond the age of 35. How will all of those players hold up during those contracts?

[MORE: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Boudreau is entering his fourth season as the Wild’s head coach and is already going to be working with his third different general manager. That is kind of shocking, not only because the Wild have gone through that much change in their front office, but that the head coach has outlasted all of it. We will put his hot seat rating as a 6 out of 10. He does not have one foot out the door, but he is probably not totally secure, either.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jason Zucker, Zach Parise, and Kevin Fiala are the three players worth keeping a close eye on this season.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Paul Fenton’s one year of error in Minnesota was his apparent burning desire to trade Zucker. He has not only been one of the team’s best two-way players and a popular member of the community, but Fenton was also trying to sell him at what was probably his lowest possible value. A similar move with Niederreiter went about as poorly as could have been expected, and repeating the same mistake with Zucker would have been crushing. As it stands now, Zucker is back in Minnesota and should be poised to have a bounce back year offensively.

Speaking of bounce back years, Parise went through one of his own during the 2018-19 season and saw pretty significant improvements in his production across the board. He is almost certainly never going to be a 40-goal, 90-point player again, but was his bounce back a one-year outlier in what has been a steady decline in recent years? Or can the Wild expect similar production this season?

Of all the players Fenton acquired during the 2018-19 season the one that seems most intriguing is Fiala. He is still only 23 years old, has already shown 20-goal ability in the NHL, and has some fairly promising underlying numbers to his game. He is a better player than what he showed immediately after the trade.

Playoffs or lottery: There is a short-term path back to the playoffs for this team, but a lot of things need to go right in order for that to happen. Realistic outcome is this looks like a team that finishes somewhere between 7th and 11th in the Western Conference. Not good enough to truly contend, but not bad enough to play its way into the highest draft lottery odds.

More
Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers re-sign Travis Konecny to 6-year, $33 million deal

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Another domino in the NHL’s restricted free agency saga has fallen.

The Philadelphia Flyers announced on Monday that they have re-signed forward Travis Konecny to a six-year contract that will pay him $5.5 million per year through the end of the 2023-24 season. Konecny was the last of the Flyers’ unsigned RFA’s, and his new deal means that general manager Chuck Fletcher’s offseason checklist is now complete.

“We are happy to have Travis under contract for the next six seasons,” said Fletcher in a statement released by the team. “Travis has shown progression in each of his three seasons and is an integral part of our group of young forwards. His speed, skill and tenacity sets him apart in today’s NHL.”

The 22-year-old Konecny is coming off a 24-goal, 49-point performance for the Flyers a year ago, a stat line that was almost identical to what he did the year before. He figures to be a significant part of the Flyers’ core in the coming seasons and is one of eight players the team has signed through at least 2022, joining Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, James van Riemsdyk, Ivan Provorov, and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Even if he never becomes anything more than a 25-goal, 50-point player that is still a pretty strong contract for the Flyers, and there is still a chance he is capable of more.

With Konecny now signed the list of remaining unsigned RFA’s throughout the league is down to Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Mathew Tkachuk, Brock Boeser, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Brandon Carlo, Julius Honka, Anthony DeAngelo, and Saku Maenalanen.

MORE:
Provorov signs 6-year, $40.5 million deal with Flyers
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.