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The education of Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois

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As only John Tortorella can do, in the span of 20 seconds before a late November game he went from saying Pierre-Luc Dubois’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs “sucked” to then describing him as arguably the team’s most complete player this season.

That kind of criticism comes with the territory for a young player who plays under an old-school coach like Tortorella. It’s a young players’ NHL and the mistakes will be there, but for the 20-year-old Dubois, he’s turned himself into a reliable top-line center for the Columbus Blue Jackets after being thrust into the role unexpectedly.

When Tortorella and his coaching staff decided to move Dubois, then only 20 games into his rookie season, up to the No. 1  center position a year ago, it was because the team needed help in that spot. They were worried at first handing such an inexperienced player that kind of responsibility, but he found his footing and established himself in that job.

“Quite honestly, he made the coaches look like fools overthinking that because he took the responsibility, thrived in it and keeps growing as a player,” Tortorella said.

It helps putting Dubois between veteran producers in Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. The line has played 586:24 even strength minutes together since last season, helping drive possession (54.17 percent Corsi) and creating 39 goals together, per Natural Stat Trick.

“They’re two real good players. As a line we play well together,” Dubois told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “We all have a different style of play that complements the other ones really well.”

Size and strength helps accelerate the development process in order to become a top-flight NHL centerman. After getting that first experience as a No. 1 center last season, Dubois knew he had to get stronger in order to help win face-offs, drive to the net and win those one-on-one battles, so that became his focus over the summer. Just peeking at his Instagram page and you’ll see the short videos of his off-season workouts, adding weight and getting up to 207 lbs. on his 6-foot-4 frame.

In this era of the NHL where small and speedy is succeeding, bigger players have to adjust in order to survive. It took Dubois nearly a quarter of last year to figure out how to use his size to his advantage after making the transition from junior hockey.

“I got my first goal in my first game and then I scored [again] in my 16th game, so it took me a long time to figure out what I could and couldn’t do,” he said. “Even today, I’m still figuring [things] out. I’m stronger than last year, so I’m still figuring some stuff out like puck protection.”

Those abilities were on display during the build-up to his goal Saturday night against the New York Islanders:

Representing Canada at the IIHF World Championship in Denmark last spring afforded Dubois the opportunity to further his education. Coming off a 20-goal, 48-point season, he discussed face-offs with Ryan O’Reilly, who’s won the tenth-most draws (6,621) since entering the NHL in 2009-10 at a 55.3 percent success rate. He was also able to get some tips for playing in the offensive zone from Connor McDavid, who knows a thing or two about succeeding in that area of the ice. 

The entire experience allowed him to watch the habits of plenty of veterans like O’Reilly, McDavid, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kyle Turris, and Josh Bailey. The faceoff talk is slowly paying off as Dubois’ success in the dot is up to 44.6 percent from 43.8 percent last season. Through 27 games he already has 13 goals and recorded 25 points in nearly two extra minutes of ice time per night. There’s still work to be done, but the strides that have been taken have impressed everyone around the Blue Jackets.

“His ability to pick up things and not feel the added pressures as a young player and get nervous about it, he’s uncanny that way,” said Tortorella. “He accepts it. He wants more. It’s a really good thing for us right now with Luc, and I can see it getting better as we keep on pushing forward.”

Dubois admits that it took him a month into last season to really get going. He wanted a better start for the 2018-19 season but it took him a handful of games to “get the right mindset going.” He says his game preparation has improved and his practices have gotten better.

“It’s not that I wasn’t working hard, I just wasn’t working the proper way,” he said. “Now the guys and the staff here has helped me a lot to refocus.”

As the Blue Jackets approach a summer where they could lose two franchise players in Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Dubois, the youngest player on the roster, has demonstrated that he’s part of the future, a piece to build around. He’s shown growth through 109 NHL games and proven he’s willing to adapt and make changes when necessary.

“Right now, I think I’ve been playing better than last year,” Dubois said. “I took another step even since the start of the season. But I still have a long ways to go. Whether it’s being consistent, with the puck, without the puck, being a centerman is not just about scoring. That’s fun, that’s what everybody talks about, but to help your team win you’ve got to do a lot more than that. You’ve got to sacrifice some offense for the team.

“To do that on a consistent basis, that’s the next step. Play well in the D zone, help the Ds out, support everybody on the ice, get the right reads. It’s a long process, but that’s what’s going to make me a better player.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ducks give discouraging update on Eaves, Kesler

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Back in 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler was wrapping up the first year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension and still looking like one of the league’s best shutdown centers.

He finished with 22 goals and 58 points for a Ducks team that reached the Western Conference Final, and was also the runner-up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

The two years that have followed, including the 2018-19 season, have not been kind to him.

After appearing in only 44 games a season ago due to injury, the 34-year-old Kesler has been limited to just 60 games this season and has missed each of the past seven due to a hip injury. In the two years he has combined for just 13 goals and 22 points, and it sounds like the Ducks do not expect to see him on the ice again this season, while there should be some serious doubt as to what his future might hold.

“We’re going to meet with the doctors tonight, [Kesler] and I,” general manager and interim head coach Bob Murray said on Friday, via the Ducks’ website. “[Kesler] has to get everything in his life in order as to what he has to do in order to play. It’s not exactly good for his body, the things he puts himself through. We need to take full inventory of where he is in his life and go forward from there. The agent and I have talked a bunch.”

Kesler still has three years remaining on his contract after this one at a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season. Between him, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry the Ducks have more than $23 million per season tied up in three players all age 33 or older over the next two full seasons (plus a third season for Kesler).

With the Ducks badly struggling on the ice this season with one of the league’s worst records it does not leave them in an ideal situation. 

Kesler’s status is not the only troubling one that Murray addressed on Friday.

He also mentioned that forward Patrick Eaves is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he dealt with a year ago when a post-viral syndrome limited him to just two games.

He has only appeared in seven NHL games this season.

“He’s had a setback,” said Murray. “Texted with him yesterday. There is no new diagnosis or anything. This is a very troubling situation, and everybody is doing the best they can with it. There is no diagnosis, and he’s just struggling again with everything. Like [Kesler], we hope he gets better so he can have a normal life. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s just struggling. It’s more like what he had last year. He’s experiencing some of the same issues as last year. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Eaves joined the Ducks in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and has scored 132 goals in 633 career games with the Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators.

Related: After year away, Eaves had a blast in return to NHL

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.

Truck driver involved in Humboldt Broncos bus crash sentenced to eight years

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MELFORT, Saskatchewan — The driver whose transport truck crashed into a hockey team bus in Canada, killing 16 people, has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Thirteen others were injured when Jaskirat Singh Sidhu’s semitrailer loaded with peat moss collided with the Humboldt Broncos’ bus in rural Saskatchewan. Sidhu had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving

The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Judge Inez Cardinal said Friday that Sidhu’s remorse and guilty plea were mitigating factors, but added she had to consider the number of people who died or were severely injured and face lifelong challenges.

Sidhu’s truck ran through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team’s bus at an intersection last April.

Cardinal said the collision was avoidable.

“Mr. Sidhu had ample time to react … had he been paying attention,” she said. “Somehow we must stop this carnage on our highways.”

The prosecution wanted the 30-year-old Sidhu to be sent to prison for 10 years, while his lawyers said other cases suggested a range of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years.

Cardinal began her decision by reading aloud each victim’s name. She said the nearly 100 victim impact statements from families were staggering.

The judge said the hockey players who died were gifted athletes, while others on the bus were dreaming about families or had already started them.

“Families have been torn apart because of the loss,” Cardinal said. “They are prone to depression, anxiety or outbursts.”

She also spoke of the survivors, who she suggested “are putting on a brave face in an attempt to be strong.”

Sidhu’s lawyers had said he was remorseful and is likely to face deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.

At a sentencing hearing in January, it was made known that Sidhu was going between 86 and 96 kph (53 and 60 mph) when he passed four signs warning him about the upcoming intersection and approached an oversized stop sign with a flashing light.

Prosecutor Thomas Healey said Sidhu should have seen the busy highway in front of him or a car that was stopped across the road and waiting for the Broncos’ bus to pass.

Healey described the semitrailer as a rocket that barreled into the intersection, which gave the bus driver no time to avoid the crash.

Defense lawyer Mark Brayford said Sidhu was hired by a small Calgary trucking company three weeks earlier. He had spent two weeks with another truck driver before heading out on his own for the first time.

Brayford suggested Sidhu was distracted by a flapping tarp on the back of his load of peat moss.

Oilers’ Rieder responds to CEO criticism: ‘It’s disappointing’

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Edmonton Oilers forward Tobias Rieder had the same reaction everyone should have had when he first read the comments from team CEO Bob Nicholson on Thursday, essentially blaming him for the Oilers’ struggles this season and missing the playoffs for what will be the second year in a row (and 12th time in the past 13 years).

“You look at it and kind of can’t believe it,” said Rieder on Friday, just less than 24 hours he was thrown under the bus by the team’s CEO.

Speaking at an event with season ticket holders, Nicholson did not hold back in his criticism of Rieder, saying that he went to Edmonton as a free agent hoping to play with one of the team’s two superstars (Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl), score 15 or 16 goals, and turn that performance into a larger contract.

Nicholson then criticized Rieder, who has not scored a goal in 60 games this season, for missing “so many breakaways” and then capping it all off with the remark that if Rieder had scored 10 or 12 goals this season the team might be in the playoffs.

“I feel like it’s disappointing, and I’m offended by it,” said Rieder, via AM 630 in Edmonton. “I’m the first one to admit I’m not having a good year. It has not been an easy season for me, it’s been hard. But I’m still going out there and giving 100 percent every time I am on the ice, every game, trying to help the team win. It was tough to read for somebody to get singled out like that and kind of thrown under the bus. It is what it is now. I’m not proud of the season I’m having. Like I said, I’m the first one to admit I’m not playing to my capabilities. I think it went a little too far, and I think Bob knows that too.”

[Related: Oilers’ CEO apologizes for comments about Tobias Rieder]

Even after their win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, the Oilers are still five points out of a playoff spot in what has been a historically weak playoff race in the Western Conference and still have five teams ahead of them for the second Wild Card spot. Their goal differential of minus-35 is 24th in the NHL and they are the 20th in the league in goals per game despite having two of the top-five scorers in the NHL (McDavid and Draisaitl), both of whom are likely to top 100 points this season.

An additional 10 or 12 goals from Rieder, or anyone else for that matter, would still give them a minus-23 goal differential (which would still only be 23rd in the league) and only improve them to 18th in the league in goals per game. Unless those “10 or 12 goals” all happened at the exact right time and only occurred in one-goal losses, it is an outrageous statement to make, and perhaps the most outrageous any team executive has made this season (not an easy accomplishment).

When asked what bothered him the most about the criticism, Rieder said it was a combination of the timing and the way it came across.

“Thought the timing was a bit weird,” Rieder said. “We are still in the race for the playoffs. Still going to go out there and play my heart out, and play for the guys and my friends in the locker room and do my best to help the team win.

“We are talking all year going through adversity, and the guys in the room we have to stick together. I just don’t think it’s right to single somebody out in a team sport. I get where he’s coming from, like I said, I’m not having my best year, and I just don’t think it’s the right place to single somebody out and throw them under the bus.”

Rieder said he first got word of the comments when Nicholson phoned him to apologize. He was not fully aware of what was happening as he had been taking his pre-game nap in preparation for Thursday’s game, and then his phone began blowing up.

While Rieder was clearly not happy with the criticism and being singled out, he said he still accepted Nicholson’s apology.

“Yeah I did,” said Rieder. “I think that’s the grown up thing to do, you don’t want to get it dragging on forever. It is what it is. Whatever happened, happened, and that’s how it is in this business, you got to get over it.”

Rieder signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the team in free agency this past season. He has 11 assists in 60 games while playing just a little more than 12 minutes per night.

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.

Holtby won’t go with Capitals to White House

ARLINGTON, Va. — Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said Friday he will not join his teammates next week for a White House celebration of their Stanley Cup championship.

Holtby is the second player on the Capitals’ active roster to decline, joining fellow Canadian Brett Connolly.

”It’s one of those things that we have to think about, but with me, I’ve got to stay true to my values, and I’m going respectfully decline the offer,” Holtby said. ”For me, it’s just a personal thing. I believe in what I believe in, and in order to stick to those values, I think I have to do what I feel is right, but that doesn’t make a difference on everyone else’s decision.”

President Donald Trump has occasionally been at odds with pro athletes, from NFL players protesting racial injustices during the national anthem to NBA players including LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

The defending Stanley Cup champions will hold a private tour of the White House and meet Trump on Monday . The event will not include a public ceremony.

Russian captain Alex Ovechkin, Americans John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and coach Todd Reirden have said they will attend.