There was a specific moment early in Saturday’s lacklustre 3-0 loss to the Edmonton Oilers that caught my eye for all the wrong reasons when it comes to the Winnipeg Jets.
The puck had popped loose in the visitor’s end of the ice, and Pierre-Luc Dubois appeared to have the best chance to retrieve it. But rather than pounce like a hungry dog on a juicy bone, the 22-year-old glided every so slowly, then seemed to just stop skating when an Oilers defender beat him to it.
Just like that, a potential offensive opportunity was gone. Dubois eventually made his way to the bench for a line change, completing one of the 19 shifts he would take in the game. His final stat line: No goals, no assists, no shots on goal and no shot attempts. His game was like an episode of Seinfeld, a show about nothing.
To be clear, I’m not singling Dubois out for blame for the end result. Everyone not named Connor Hellebuyck had a performance to forget. The Jets were a sleepy, sloppy bunch, following up a lengthy, successful road trip with a stinker.
With an impressive 27-15-3 overall record and a playoff spot well in hand, I’m not going to judge them too harshly for one tough night at the office, especially given the relatively low stakes right now, but what to make of the fact it marked the 18th time, in 30 games this season with Winnipeg, where Dubois was held off the scoresheet?
There have been flashes of greatness, for sure. The 6-3, 218-pounder from Quebec does have eight goals and 11 assists with the Jets, with those 19 points coming in the 12 games he wasn’t blanked. Highlights include five multi-point outings, and two overtime winners. You see tantalizing glimpses of what could be, both now and for years to come.
But there have been plenty of games such as the last one, where he’s been fairly invisible for large stretches of play. Whether it’s fatigue, injury, a lack of confidence or something else, you wonder what it will take to really get him going.
Jets coach Paul Maurice clearly has similar questions. He’s moved Dubois throughout the lineup, trying to find the right fit. You’ll recall he first came in on the wing, eventually moved to his natural centre spot, but has now been placed back on the flank. He began Saturday’s contest on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor, but was shifted down by the third period to play with Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp.
The Jets have taken the last two days off — I’d argue it’s three straight if you count Saturday’s outing— so we’re not sure what Maurice might have in the works once they return to practice Tuesday. Captain Blake Wheeler is expected to return from his concussion in time for their next game on Thursday night, so Maurice is going to have some options available.
There’s no question Winnipeg is built to contend, and Dubois is a big part of that. When playing at a high level, he makes the Jets a match-up nightmare up the middle, but for a skilled power forward consistently getting top six minutes and power play time, it’s safe to say more is expected from the third-overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft who now has 269 regular-season games under his belt.
We live in a time of instant judgment and scorching hot takes, so I’ll repeat once again what I said back in mid-January when Dubois was obtained from Columbus in exchange for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. Given the young ages, not to mention uncertain contract statuses of all involved, this blockbuster trade is likely going to take years to fully assess.
As much as folks want to declare instant winners and losers, it’s usually never that simple. And this deal is especially complex, considering it happened in the middle of a global pandemic, early in a unique 56-game all-divisional season, with a compressed schedule that doesn’t allow for much practice time. And, in Dubois’ case, he also had to deal with a two-week quarantine, and then a subsequent injury.
None of that can be easy, for anyone. Let alone a young player still trying to find their way in the best hockey league in the world.
It’s worth noting that Laine and Roslovic aren’t exactly setting the world on fire in their new hockey homes, either. Laine, who turned 23 on Monday, is struggling mightily, with 10 goals and seven assists in 37 games. He recently broke a 14-game goal-scoring drought. After a strong start with the Blue Jackets, he has just four goals and three assists in the last 26 games, while going a ghastly minus-17 in that stretch. He’s also been called out by coach John Tortorella and benched.
Roslovic, 24, seen by many as the “throw-in” to this deal, is actually outscoring both Dubois and Laine, with nine goals and 20 assists in 38 games, but he, too, has been roasted publicly by the bombastic Tortorella, and even sat out a recent game as a healthy scratch.
Columbus has sunk like a rock to near the bottom of the Central Division standings at 15-22-9 and just one point ahead of the lowly Detroit Red Wings. They’re just playing out the string now, their post-season hopes dashed long ago.
The Jets have continued to pile up the victories since Dubois joined the fold, with an immediate future that is much brighter. And if there’s reason for optimism when it comes to Dubois, one only has to look back at an impressive playoff in the bubble last summer, including a Game 3 hat-trick against Toronto which led Columbus to an eventual qualifying round series upset over their heavily-favoured opponent.
Dubois came up big on a big stage, so no doubt the Jets hope recent history repeats itself. With the next two games against the Maple Leafs — and first place in the all-Canadian division still very much up for grabs — there’s no time like the present for Dubois to get in gear.
I still believe there’s a heck of a hockey player here in Dubois, who is signed for another season at US$5 million and then becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022. The sooner he can unlock his full potential on a more consistent basis — and make quiet, uneventful nights such as Saturday the rare exception — the better it will be for a Jets team hoping to make a lot of noise later this spring.