All things being equal, Pierre-Luc Dubois was hardly expected to be the center of attention of the hockey world. And yet that’s exactly the predicament the Blue Jackets forward finds himself in, on the verge of eliminating the star-studded Maple Leafs, on the verge of his own ascension to stardom as well.
Entering a series against Toronto’s quartet of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Dubois barely featured on the playbill, with most focusing on how the Blue Jackets’ star pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski would counter the Maple Leafs’ high-octane offense. Depending on your vantage point, Dubois has been either the hero, the villain, or if you’re a neutral, a ubiquitous driving force in a series that now comes down to Sunday’s elimination game.
Dubois shouldn’t have been this overlooked and to be clear, the Maple Leafs surely weren’t taking him lightly. Maybe it’s a function of the Blue Jackets’ commitment to sound defensive play over everything, with offense generated from counterattacks, and from their power play that Dubois’ increasingly important role was viewed as a byproduct of John Tortorella’s system. Columbus scored fewer goals (180) than any team re-invited back to the dance. Perhaps, it’s a function of the Blue Jackets’ market size, the third-smallest in the NHL, that Dubois could fly under the radar despite his draft pedigree.
In any event, Dubois has outplayed Tavares in key stretches of the series, particularly in Game 3 where the Leafs captain was stripped by Alexandre Texier, who fed Dubois to complete his hat trick in a stunning comeback victory. For better or worse, the Maple Leafs are the center of the hockey universe and Dubois can make a case as a legitimate star if he can engineer a victory over the East host, who are facing a referendum on their roster composition, a debate that would certainly be accelerated and re-litigated until the puck drops next season if they’re eliminated Sunday.
John Tavares gets poke checked and Pierre-Luc Dubois completes the hat trick to win it in overtime! pic.twitter.com/FhDsPW1wpF— Ryan Gilbert (@RGilbertSOP) August 7, 2020
“He’s strong as an ox down in the corners. His puck protection is off the charts. He’s a handful for any defenceman, no matter how big you are or how quick you are. He always finds a way to muscle you off, hold you off with one arm and make a play,” Jones said of Dubois to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.
“He can match up with any centerman in the league when he’s on his game, and we love having him on our side.”
Dubois hasn’t gone about his work quietly. During the final minutes of Toronto’s 3-0 win in Game 2, Dubois cross-checked Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin into the boards. Muzzin’s momentum carried him into the leg of Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand and he left the ice on a stretcher, a terrifying moment irrespective of the on-ice implications. Muzzin, Toronto’s best defenceman (due apologies to Morgan Rielly), is out for the series.
Here's the cross check from Pierre-Luc Dubois on Jake Muzzin. No penalty for Dubois. pic.twitter.com/AMdu7lFuU4— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) August 4, 2020
We’re seeing the totality of Dubois’ game on full display. The 22-year-old was The Forgotten Man of the 2016 NHL Draft debate between Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine and was selected third overall. No one in their right mind would suggest the Blue Jackets are better off with Dubois than Matthews, but he’s held the Maple Leafs superstar to a 43.55 CF% and a 47.92 FF% through their shared 24:10 together, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Dubois hasn’t missed a single game during his three NHL seasons and is slated to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. It would be a stretch to create an equivalency between Dubois’ upcoming contract negotiations and that of Marner’s drawn out affair last summer, but he should make Jarmo Kekäläinen’s life difficult in trying to find a deal that matches his market value, while the Blue Jackets aim to lock him in long-term, alongside Jones and Werenski as the core pieces.
Through the course of four games, Dubois courted controversy with a questionable hit on a vital member of the Maple Leafs, outplayed the headliners for large stretches, submitted a signature performance in Game 3, while remaining a persistent defensive presence against Matthews and his linemates. All of these qualities feel familiar in becoming an antagonist against the Maple Leafs. If Dubois can continue to elevate his all-around game and beat the host on home ice, he will gain the plaudits that have been long overdue.
Alright, Mr. Dubois, are you ready for your close-up?
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