WINNIPEG — Pierre-Luc Dubois might be embarking on a new adventure, but this isn’t entirely new territory for the Winnipeg Jets’ prized acquisition.
Although he was a bit of a late bloomer by his own admission, the topic of lofty expectations has become a constant piece of the backdrop since he was 17 years old.
Dubois, now 22, has ample experience in this arena, dating back to his time in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Back in December of 2018, Dubois was traded by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada for 16-year-old forward Mathias Laferrière, a first-round draft choice in 2017, and a second-round choice in 2018.
This isn’t to suggest that being moved by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a deal for a pair of first-round draft picks in Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic doesn’t carry a bigger burden at this stage of his career. But based on what he’s dealt with previously, Dubois is equipped to handle it.
“There were a lot of special moments in my life — and a lot of pressure too,” Dubois said in a recent telephone interview as he was wrapping up the final days of his 14-day quarantine. “From getting drafted to going to the world juniors to getting traded, I learned a lot. On the ice, I learned a lot. But mentally, it prepared me for the next step in my career.”
As valuable as the process was, it certainly wasn’t easy to endure.
There was plenty of joy in being chosen third overall in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, a move that surprised many at the time as most projections had Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi going with that pick.
Dubois attended his first training camp, but then dealt with the disappointment of not getting into any action with the Blue Jackets, returned to his junior team before he was able to make his NHL debut.
In December, Dubois took advantage of his second opportunity to crack Team Canada’s roster as he suited up in the World Junior Hockey Championship.
The experience was something he won’t soon forget, but there was also plenty of criticism aimed in his direction after Canada lost in the gold medal game in a shootout to the United States.
“I went to the world junior and we went to the final, but I didn’t even score a goal in that tournament,” said Dubois, who had five assists in seven games. “Obviously, everybody loves giving their opinions on the draft pick and who you are as a player and they just base it off one season.
“It was a really good learning experience for me, to go from the year before, (where) basically nobody was talking about me to one year later, everybody is calling me a flop and everybody is calling me a bad pick that is never going to pan out. People are judging you on your every move.”
Dubois understood that dealing with the court of public opinion comes with the territory, but it was an emotional time and it reinforced what he would be dealing with in his new normal.
“I was starting to understand more and starting to not care as much about the outside noise,” said Dubois. “It hit me at 16, after our first playoffs in junior, when one scout told my dad he could see me getting drafted in the first two rounds. That’s when it kind of hit me that this is getting serious.
“Then, with the draft and all that, nobody was talking about me. Nobody knew who I was, nobody knew where I played and nobody knew what type of player I was. The next year, everybody has their opinion. Even today, it’s kind of the same thing. It would be harder today if I didn’t go through that at 17 or 18.”
So when Dubois recently came under some scrutiny for how his time in Columbus came to an abrupt end, he was ready to deal with the fallout.
Although he has no interest in going into detail about why things went sour with the Blue Jackets and what ultimately led to his departure, Dubois sees joining the Jets as a way to reconnect with his roots.
“When I was a kid, I played hockey because it was my passion and now, playing in the NHL it’s a business and it’s a career, but I want to go back to just playing hockey and having fun in Canada,” said Dubois. “There’s not a country that’s more passionate about hockey in the world. There are no fan bases that are more passionate than here.
“You’re around people that are just like you. You’re around people that love the game, that grew up watching the game and playing the game. It’s going to be really fun to share (the experience) with people like that.”
For the record, Dubois wasn’t the one who asked for the trade from the Screaming Eagles
It was the opposite, actually.
“We chose to go a route where we’d be young, but still competitive. That’s how we decided to see what was on the market for Pierre-Luc,” said Marc-Andre Dumont, who was the head coach and GM of the Screaming Eagles at the time. “We approached his agent, they never requested a trade. He never asked me to be moved to a contender. The agent, Pat Brisson, never contacted me. I contacted him to say we’re going to contemplate the idea of possibly moving Pierre-Luc if we got the right offer. I said ‘don’t worry, it will be to a contender because of the asking price.’ We’ll make sure it’s a good organization and an organization that is ready to go for it. That’s how it worked out.
“It was hard to trade him because we loved him, but we got an incredible return. It was a fantastic two-and-a-half years with our organization. He lived at the same billet the whole time.”
When it comes to those attacking Dubois’ character, Dumont offered a stern rebuttal.
“I don’t have any concerns with Pierre-Luc at all. He’s experienced a lot for a 22-year-old hockey player,” said Dumont. “Pierre-Luc is a very intense player that demands a lot from himself. He’s got very, very high standards in terms of performance, development and preparation. That made his success up to now. He’s a true competitor. He wants to perform and he wants to be a difference-maker. He wants to help his team win.”
Dumont had no trouble pointing to an example of Dubois’ genuine love for the game.
The Screaming Eagles were going to be without a pair of centres for a game the next night and Dumont asked Dubois if he’d be willing to give it a shot.
Not only did Dubois say yes, but he also stayed on after practice with a teammate and an assistant coach because he wanted to soak up all the information that he could about what might allow him to gain an edge.
“I didn’t ask him to do so. He didn’t have to take 200. He could have taken 10, 15 or 20 and said ‘that’s fine, I’m good.’ That’s a testament to the preparation and his physical strength,” said Dumont. “He took that (responsibility) so seriously. When it’s a draft year for 17-year-olds, they’re very self-conscious because they know every night out there is someone from the NHL making an opinion. Pierre-Luc didn’t have any of that. He wasn’t scared of not playing well or looking foolish or making mistakes that would cost him with NHL scouts. He played centre that night and the rest is history.”
Why did Dubois go the extra mile in that instance?
The short answer is that its part of his DNA.
“What’s one thing that I can get better at right now? To me, it was faceoffs,” said Dubois, whose father Eric is an assistant coach with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. “So, I asked questions, tried different techniques. Everything was new to me, so I was trying to learn as much as possible, as fast as possible.”
The move to the middle was so successful that Dubois stayed there — and it’s also where he’s been making his mark in the NHL.
Although he wasn’t searching for greener pastures, the move was a welcome one — with Dubois going from a rebuilding-on-the-fly situation to a team that was trying to take a run at a QMJHL title.
Dubois fit in well with his new teammates and quickly caught the attention of the Armada coaching staff.
“What impressed me most was how powerful he was. Everything that he does, it’s all about power,” said Jean-Francois Fortin, who was an assistant coach with the Armada at the time of the trade. “He’s a freak of nature. He was not going around people but through people. It was really, really impressive for a big guy to be able to move like that. Not just north-south, but east-west, with his agility.
“There’s a reason why these guys are drafted there and it’s not just because they’re talented. Most of the time, I would say 90 per cent of the time, their work ethic is right on par with their talent. Pierre-Luc is one of those guys, it’s just work, work, work. On the ice, off the ice. I called him the terminator when he played for us. He was a machine.”
Dubois has plenty of conviction and could be hard on his teammates, though not in a selfish manner.
“Every superstar that I played with or coached, they are tough on their teammates,” said Fortin. “It’s mostly because they’re tough on themselves first. When you expect perfection, you expect it all over — from yourself, from your teammates, from the coaching staff and from everybody. So, sometimes he was tough on his teammates. But not because he’s a bad person or a bad teammate, it’s because he wants perfection — that’s why. Superstars, that’s how they’re wired and Pierre-Luc was the same way.”
Obviously, the circumstances surrounding the two trades are vastly different, but having gone through something similar before should help with the transition — even if this one came during a global pandemic.
“That was a great experience to do that. In my whole career, that was one of the best things that could have happened for me. To see something new and to be in a new environment,” said Dubois, who helped the Armada reach the QMJHL final in 2017. “I’ve never been traded in the NHL until now, so I don’t know if it will exactly translate. Back then, we were all students in school, so we could hang out 24/7, but it definitely was a good experience and it could help and translate to here in Winnipeg.”
You can bet the Jets are banking on Dubois to build on his past Stanley Cup playoff experience as he begins this new odyssey.
Dubois was part of the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets team that upset the top-ranked Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2019 playoffs.
He followed that up with a strong showing in the Toronto bubble back in August, chalking up 10 points in 10 games as the Blue Jackets bounced the Maple Leafs from the qualifying round and then gave the Lightning another strong battle before bowing out to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
The highlight-reel included a hat trick in Game 3 against the Maple Leafs on a night that was capped by the game-winner at 18:24 of the first overtime period.
Don’t expect Dubois to suffer from stage fright, he welcomes the spotlight.
“He handles pressure really well,” said Blue Jackets defenceman David Savard. “He’s focused on being the best player he can be every single day and we saw it in the playoffs last year, with how he performed when we needed him to. I don’t think he listens too much to the noise going on around him.
“He’s just that kind of player that kind of gets to the next level when he gets to a bigger stage. I’m not too worried about him going to Canada. Obviously, those markets have a lot more pressure and there’s a lot more people watching, but I’m excited for him to show what he can do.”
When it comes to facing off with the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews and company in the North Division, Dubois welcomes the opportunity to not only try to neutralize those players but to win the matchup outright.
“As a kid, I was never the guy everybody talked about,” said Dubois. “In AAA hockey, we’d go to tournaments and everybody talks about a couple of guys on the other teams. You hear ‘this guy is one of the best in the country’ and all of that. I always felt that I was up there with them but literally nobody was talking about me — and that was fine.
“I remember every time, my dad would say ‘just go out there and be better than them. Be better than anybody on the ice and who cares what everybody is saying. They’ll go home and maybe they’ll still think that guy is the best, but you’ll know that you outplayed them.’ All my life, it’s been that. To this day, going up against big guys and big names and good players — there are a lot of good players in the NHL and that’s what’s fun about it. It’s a challenge every night. Who is going to be the best player and who is going to be the best centre? Who is going to be the guy that helps the team win?”
Who Dubois starts on a line with and where he eventually settles in will generate plenty of discussion over the coming days and weeks, but what we know for sure is that his arrival will be celebrated.
“The first thing I think of is incredible depth. He’s a terrific two-way player,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “We had to give up a couple of extremely good players to acquire him, so we’re really looking forward to another big body down the middle. Gives us some depth and really allows us to continue to wear teams down.”
Dubois is feeling a lot of pent up energy as he nears the end of his quarantine and prepares to hit the ice on Sunday for his first practice.
While he hasn’t formally met his teammates, Dubois has been involved in some zoom meetings and got a head start on familiarizing himself with the Jets’ style of play, which should help as he prepares to debut with his new team on Tuesday in the fourth game of this series with the Calgary Flames.
“The only reference for me is this trade, so I don’t know what it would usually be like. But obviously it’s different,” said Dubois. “You have to adapt. I’ve been working out in my living room. You’ve got to take positives out of everything and now, I’ll be able to learn the system a bit more before I jump in. So, in one way, it’s unfortunate I’m not playing right now and concentrating on meeting all of my teammates. But at least the positive is that I can do some video, watch games and pay more attention to everything.”