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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.

The Buzzer: Stamkos gets 700th point with hat trick; Howard sensational in win

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos eclipsed the 700-point milestone in style on Monday as he scored a hat trick in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers — the ninth of his career and first since 2014.

Stamkos has 701 points now in 696 games (363 goals and 338 assists). He’s the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to reach the 700-point plateau and third in franchise history to do so after Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

2. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

Beating the Los Angeles Kings isn’t too tough a task these days, but the Kings didn’t lose this one quietly.

And a big reason why they picked up the ‘L’ was Howard, who made 42 saves. The Red Wings are lucky he did and are fortunate they were able to score on three of their 18 shots on goal.

Howard improved his record to 10-6-4 with a .923 save percentage — the latter which ranks in the top 10 among starters.

3. Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks

Meier scored twice on Monday in a 5-2 win for the Sharks against the New Jersey Devils.

Meier now has 16 goals on the season, just five back from his career high of 21 set last season. He’s also up to 30 points, which is six back of his career high of 36, which was also set last season. He had those 21 goals and 26 points in 81 games last season. He’s up to 16 goals and 30 points with 53 games to go.

He’s going to shatter last year’s numbers, it would seem.

Highlights of the night

Drew Doughty‘s ankles hurting after this one:

Stamkos’ hat trick, including one of the goals where he’s falling over and still manages to roof it:

Passing, it’s a good thing:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 2, Islanders 1

Red Wings 3, Kings 1

Lightning 6, Rangers 3

Sharks 5, Devils 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Isles’ Clutterbuck injured after punch from Pens’ Letang

MSG
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This is a weird one, so let’s start from the beginning.

With the Penguins on the power play, Evgeni Malkin‘s one-timer deflected off Leo Komarov‘s stick and into the head of Thomas Hickey.

There was a quick bit of confusion amongst players before the referee came in to stop the play to make sure Hickey, who had blood on his visor, was OK.

While that was happening, Cal Clutterbuck, who was shadowing Kris Letang at the blue line, apparently didn’t hear the whistle or was upset that Letang, correctly, stopped playing and decided to cross-check him in the arm.

Letang, displeased with the cross-check, returned the favor with a punch that caught Clutterbuck high, sending rhe latter crumbling to the ice.

Clutterbuck struggled to get back up before skating hunched over off the ice. He was called for cross-checking on the play while Letang received a roughing minor.

Clutterbuck did not return to the game.

Hickey, meanwhile, left the game for a brief time before returning.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Avs’ duo of MacKinnon, Rantanen chasing rare feat

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One of the many downsides to the NHL’s goal-scoring decline over the past two decades has been the impact it has had on individual numbers and milestones. For quite a while it looked like the 100-point scorer was becoming a thing of the past, if it was not already entirely extinct. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18 it was a mark that was hit just eight times, and two of those were from Connor McDavid. In only one of those years (2017-18) did the league have multiple 100-point scorers.

There are currently 11 players around the league on a pace to do it this season, including the Avalanche duo of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. A pair of teammates hitting the 100-point mark in the same season would be a huge deal and put them in some pretty exclusive company as it has only been done six times over the past 25 seasons.

That list:

  • Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the Washington Capitals in 2009-10
  • Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09
  • Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley for the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06
  • Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne for the Anaheim Ducks in 1998-99
  • Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg for the Colorado Avalanche in 1995-96
  • Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96

MacKinnon and Rantanen have both already topped 45 points this season.

Looking at that same 25-year time period only three other sets of teammates have had that many points through their team’s first 30 games: Alfredsson, Heatley and Jason Spezza for the 2005-06 Senators, Lemieux, Jagr, and Francis, for the 1995-96 Penguins, and Sakic and Forsberg for the 1995-96 Avalanche.

All of those sets of teammates went on to each top-100 points for the season.

(Spezza did not hit the 100-point mark for the Senators, only because of injury. He finished the season with 90 points in 68 games. He had not missed 14 games he almost certainly would have done so as well).

[Related: Avalanche sixth in this week’s PHT Power Rankings]

What stands out about the current Avalanche duo is that as of Monday they are both on pace for more than 120 points this season.

No one has hit that mark since Crosby did it during the 2006-07 season, and the only three times it’s happened in the salary cap era were the first two years coming out of the lockout when penalties, power plays, and goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed to near early-90s levels.

The last time a pair of teammates topped 120 in the same season was the Lemieux-Jagr duo in 1995-96. Before them? You have to go back to Lemieux and Kevin Stevens during the 1991-92 season, and then the Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey trio for the Edmonton Oilers during the 1985-86 season.

Overall, it’s been done just nine times in league history.

Given how rare it is and how difficult it is to maintain that kind of a pace of an 82-game season — especially in today’s NHL, even with the recent uptick in scoring — it’s asking an awful lot to expect them to do it. The 100-point mark, though, seems far more attainable as they would both need to maintain just around a point-per-game pace the rest of the season. Seeing as how they have both been point-per-game players for nearly a year-and-a-half now, it is not that far-fetched to think they can pull it off.

It is not the only piece of history they are chasing this season.

Rantanen and MacKinnon are currently first and second in the NHL’s scoring race.

The past five times teammates finished in the top-two in scoring:

  • Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos for the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Lightning lockout shortened season)
  • Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr for the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens for the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers
  • Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers

The only other post-Original Six teammates to do it were Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito on a couple of different occasions for Boston Bruins in the 1970s.

This one seems a little more difficult if only due to the presence of McDavid and the season he is having for the Oilers. As long as he stays healthy you should probably bet on him to end up at the top of the scoring list, especially if new coach Ken Hitchcock is going to keep playing him 25 minutes per night.

Along with Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen and MacKinnon give the Avalanche the NHL’s best line.

That trio has scored 45 percent of the team’s goals this season, while the Avalanche have outscored opponents by a 28-14 margin when all three are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play. They are the biggest reason the Avalanche are near the top of the NHL standings and on track to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

PHT Power Rankings: Blackhawks hit bottom

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If you turn on any random Chicago Blackhawks game on any random night against any random opponent it is a good bet they are already going to be losing by two or three goals 10 minutes into the first period. It has been a constant trend for about two months now.

Sometimes they are able to push back a little and tie the game only to lose in backbreaking fashion, just as they have done in their most recent losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens.

Sometimes they never push back and just get completely run out of the building.

Either way the result is the same — a loss. Those losses keep piling up at an alarming rate and are sending the Blackhawks toward what is looking to be their worst season in years.

Thanks to the seven-game losing streak they are carrying into the week the Blackhawks officially have the worst record (based on points percentage) in the entire league and are just 3-11-2 since firing Joel Quenneville.

In other words, things are bad. Really bad.

The problems are obvious. The good players that were part of the core that won three Stanley Cups in six years are older, more expensive and not as good as they once were (if they are even still on the team). Those larger contracts, combined with the salary cap, once again ripped apart the depth that always made the Blackhawks such a strong team.

The latter point is where a lot of the problems really start to show up. The Blackhawks went through salary cap purges before but were always able to find ways to restock the cupboards, often times to the point of them still being able to compete for, and even win, championships.

They have not done that over the past few years.

Just consider this question: Who is the last truly impactful and useful the Blackhawks have added to their organization through free agency or a trade? Have there been any over the past three or four years? The re-acquisition of Brandon Saad is probably the answer you could come up with because he is a fine, decent player. But when you had to give up an even better player (Artemi Panarin) to get him back that does not really help things.

Big contracts, an aging core, and no fresh talent entering the organization is a bad combination, and for this week it has the Blackhawks at the bottom of the PHT Power Rankings. They may be there for a while, too.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Quite simply the best hockey team in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are early season MVP candidates, Steven Stamkos is a point-per-game player right behind them, and they are 11-3-0 since their Vezina Trophy finalist goalie has been injured. That includes the six-game winning streak they carry into the week. They also are coming off of a dominant 7-1 win against a really good Colorado Avalanche team.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets are 10-4-1 in their past 15 games and are averaging more than four goals per game during that stretch. There may not be a better collection of top-line forward talent anywhere in the league.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs — Not too worried about the fact they haven’t won since William Nylander returned. The biggest concern here, just like last season, is that Frederik Andersen gets worn down from the workload he is being asked to carry. His play will determine how far they go in the playoffs.

4. Nashville Predators — They have cooled off a bit in recent weeks but that has coincided with the team being crushed by injuries. When healthy this is still one of the league’s best teams.

5. Washington Capitals — The champs are starting to get on a roll and Alex Ovechkin is still scoring goals at an unprecedented pace given his age.

The Surprises

6. Colorado Avalanche — Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon are both on pace for more than 120 points this season. Doubtful they will maintain those numbers over 82 games, but the fact they have done it over even 30 games is incredible.

7. Calgary Flames — Have to be honest, did not see the Flames being the team to crawl to the top of the Pacific Division at any point this season. How long will they remain there?

[Related: Are the Flames ready to contend?]

8. Buffalo Sabres — When every game you play is decided by a single goal sometimes you are going to get the breaks, and sometimes you are not. Thirteen of the Sabres’ past 15 games have been one-goal games, a stretch that has seen them win 10 games in a row and then also lose five games in a row.  They are not as good as they looked during the winning streak and they are not as bad as they have looked during the losing streak. Things balance out.

Strong Playoff Teams

9. Boston Bruins — They are still going to have to find some secondary scoring if they are going to be a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky picked a terrible time to have his worst season as a starter. How good would the Blue Jackets be this season if he was playing at his normal level?

The Middle Ground

11. Vegas Golden Knights –– They might still be the best team in the Pacific Division and when all is said and done will probably end up winning it.

12. Dallas Stars — The rapid emergence of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has helped make up for the absence of John Klingberg.

13. Anaheim Ducks — John Gibson should be a finalist for MVP at this point, while Daniel Sprong has made a nice little impact in his first few games with the team. Nice move in the shootout on Sunday night to help pick up the win.

14. Edmonton Oilers — If this team makes the playoffs Connor McDavid should be a unanimous MVP winner. He is doing even more than he did a year ago.

Related: Seven stunning numbers from the first two months of the NHL season]

15. San Jose Sharks — They have won three out of their past four and they don’t have a tough schedule coming up this week. Is this where it starts to turn around?

16. Montreal Canadiens — The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade gets ripped (and deservedly so) which makes it kind of easy to forget that Weber is still pretty good. He is just older, has a worse contract, and might be starting to break down a bit physically. Still, he can play a little. He has five points in his first six games since returning to the lineup this season.

17. Pittsburgh Penguins — Every time it looks like they are going to get everything together and go on a roll they put together a terrible showing. Still, they have picked up 13 out of a possible 20 points over their past 10 games.

18. Minnesota Wild — They have some concerns right now, with the biggest potentially being whatever is wrong with starting goalie Devan Dubnyk.

19. New York Islanders — Still not sure they have enough offense to emerge from the pack and make the playoffs this season.

20. Carolina Hurricanes — The Hurricanes can not catch a break in goal. Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to solidify the position for a little bit, played extremely well, and then ended up injured. Now it is back to the Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek duo that was not working earlier this season

21. Arizona Coyotes — It is really tough to see the Coyotes hanging around in the Western Conference playoff race given the injury situation with Antti Raanta.

22. Detroit Red Wings — Dylan Larkin is on track for the best season of his career and several of their potential trade chips (Gustav Nyquist, Jimmy Howard) are having productive seasons. So they have that going for them.

23. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist is still getting it done, he just doesn’t have enough around him for it to really matter.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Now that they have a new general manager in place it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here and where “bias for action” takes them.

[Related: Chuck Fletcher’s plate will be full as new Flyers’ GM]

25. Ottawa Senators — Losing Matt Duchene and Bobby Ryan to injury for the foreseeable future is really going to hurt what has been a surprisingly good offense this season.

26. Florida Panthers — With better goaltending this season they may not be needing another second half surge just to get back into playoff contention.

Lose For Hughes

27. Los Angeles Kings — The worst goal scoring team in the league by a huge margin and the third-fewest shots on goal per game. They are redefining what bad offensive hockey is in this era.

28. Vancouver Canucks — Since starting the season 10-6-2 the Canucks have managed to go only 3-10-1 over their past 14 games. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are still studs, though.

29. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall has to be having flashbacks to his Oilers days.

30. St. Louis Blues — After getting blown out on Sunday the Blues sounded like a completely broken team. They are still better than their rivals.

31. Chicago Blackhawks — Maybe Jeremy Colliton goes on to be a good NHL head coach, but right now the decision to fire Quenneville just looks comical.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.