Dubois finds fit with Wheeler

It hasn’t always been a seamless transition for Pierre-Luc Dubois and the Winnipeg Jets.

That includes a rough start.

Once the Jets acquired Dubois in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets — a Jan. 23 deal that saw elite sniper Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic go the other way — Dubois was required to undergo a two-week quarantine before he could join his new team. And though it’s unclear if his confinement to a hotel room, creating a major challenge to stay in game shape, had anything to do with a lower-body injury he suffered in his second game back, it was nevertheless a disappointing turn of events having to miss a four-game stretch.

Needless to say, given Dubois’ high potential to become a bona fide No. 1 centre and the fact the Jets will undoubtedly be looking to sign him long term, Winnipeg is doing everything they can to smooth the journey. A major piece of that puzzle has been putting the 22-year-old Dubois on a line with captain Blake Wheeler.

Given that Dubois is still very much in the early stages of his NHL career — he’s currently the youngest player on the Jets roster — it certainly makes sense to have the calming presence of Wheeler beside him. Wheeler, 34, has been one of the Jets most productive players in Winnipeg’s rise to relevance among the top clubs in the league.

But Wheeler has also adjusted his game with age, resulting in a more calculated approach of where to be on the ice and when. He played the centre position for large parts of last season and so he knows what to do to support Dubois in the defensive zone. It’s also no secret that’s why Paul Stastny rounds out the trio; a full-time centre moved to wing, Stastny has only further alleviated that pressure on Dubois to play a full 200-foot game.

“I’m the new guy in here, played 20-something games but everything’s still new — in the practice and out there in the game. Yesterday our practice felt good. We did some two-on-two things, some two-on-two work, some two-on-one, stuff like that just to get a feel for my linemates,” Dubois said after a 4-3 win over the Ottawa Senators Monday, in which he scored twice, including the game-winner.

“It feels good, brings confidence also. But when you’re playing with good players like they have in this dressing room, they always make it easy for you out there. They talk a lot. They’re good players, but also good people, good teammates. So they’re trying to make it easier for me out there.”

Wheeler has been the most noticeable for Dubois’ development, particularly when it comes to contributing on the score sheet. Of the eight goals Dubois has scored for the Jets this season, Wheeler has set up four of them, including three primary assists.

The most recent example was in Monday’s win. Wheeler took the puck from the right corner, behind the opponent’s net before feeding the puck to a moving Dubois, who cradled it before delivering a perfect shot under the arm of Anton Forsberg for the game’s first goal.

“So the part of that, ‘the game kind of slows down’ part is because Blake can kind of hang on to it under pressure, right? So some guys get the puck in a one-on-one battle in the corner and you need to come to him as fast as you can to provide help, where Blake you can maybe stay away from him a little bit. He’s got full control of the puck so you don’t have to come to him,” coach Paul Maurice said.

“So the part that I like about that is the turn that Blake makes under pressure. So he shakes a guy in the corner and he comes out and makes that pass. I think Pierre can do that. With his size and his strength he can control the puck like that. And I don’t think that’s necessarily been a part of his game, because it’s not for most of those young players. You’ll see Kyle Connor does that now, and he never did that when he first came into the league. He’ll take a guy one-on-one, understanding his speed and how to use it. So he’s learning from Blake.”

Maurice eased Dubois into the lineup back in late February, starting him on a third line with Connor and Trevor Lewis. That would only last one game before Lewis was replaced with Wheeler on the right wing, only for Dubois to pull up lame at practice the next day.

When Dubois returned to the lineup, he was moved to left wing, this time with Mark Scheifele as his centre and Wheeler on the opposite side. Dubois had a three-point night in his debut with the new line, with both of his goals assisted by Wheeler.

But after three consecutive games without a point, Maurice took out the line blender and for the next 14 games Dubois played centre between Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. While there was some success on the scoreboard — including two goals and six assists — Dubois, at times, seemed to struggle adjusting to the quickness of his wingers. Ehlers and Connor aren’t known for their defence, either, so it became clear Dubois needed help in his own zone.

That prompted a return to Dubois playing with Wheeler, along with Stastny on the other wing. In those four games, Dubois has three goals. Dubois said the chemistry with Wheeler and the entire line has been promising but that it’s still developing as he gets used to the Jets systems.

“(Wheeler) is a great passer. He makes it easy out there sometimes. He sees guys so well I just have to get in that open space and it’s more often than not on my blade,” Dubois said. “Stas, too, just makes it really easy for me out there, whether it’s in the D-zone or the O-zone. They’re always talking to me and telling me where they want me and stuff like that.”

Maurice has a different perspective on Dubois and his play so far with the Jets. He doesn’t just look at point production, even if he understands that’s important for a skilled player like Dubois to be contributing that way every night.

So in his evaluation, Maurice is quick to downplay any perceived struggles. Perhaps it’s the fact Dubois is only 22 and very much still developing into the player he’ll eventually become.

Simply put, it isn’t going to happen overnight.

“I don’t feel Pierre has been going through that much. I’m not going to relate that to the players that left, but we’re really, really happy with Pierre. It’s good for him to score goals. I know points are important, but he’s a really good young centre-iceman that’s going to get better,” Maurice said.

“I like him with Blake a lot. I think that’s helped his game. Maybe he feels better confidence-wise, scores two… I’m good with him. This is been a good thing for our team, we’re winning hockey games. He’s helped us do that. I guess numbers are important, they tell you more imperially that a guy’s having an impact in a game. But there’s so much growth here for this young man and he’s going to be a good player for the Jets for a long time. I’m good with where he’s at.”

Speaking of where he’s at, Maurice hinted at an eventual break up between Dubois and Wheeler. The hope, though, is by the time that happens, whatever still needs to be ironed out with the Jets newest centre has been completed, making it full steam ahead come playoffs.

“Because I’ve answered about four questions about this pairing, I’m not sure if it’s going to stay. I know that it may work and it may work long-term, and we’re going to run this probably a good stretch of time,” Maurice said.

“You’re going to want to get fairly close to what we’re going to start with as we get closer to the playoffs. So I like it for now. I’m not sure if it’s our best lineup just yet, still figuring that out. I think when we get off this five-game road trip we will have a much better handle on it.”

 

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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