Opinion

Pierre-Luc Dubois hasn’t skated a single shift with the Winnipeg Jets yet. But his impact is already being felt in a significant way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois hasn’t skated a single shift with the Winnipeg Jets yet. But his impact is already being felt in a significant way.

Just look at the lines coach Paul Maurice will roll out for his 7-3-1 club Tuesday in Calgary, when the 22-year-old finally makes his long-awaited debut after two weeks in quarantine. Not only is it arguably the most balanced top-to-bottom forward group we've ever seen around here — perhaps even better than during the 2018 run to the Western Conference Final given the development of young core players since then — it's one of the most impressive in the NHL.

The strength is especially apparent up the middle, which explains why Dubois broke into a big smile when I asked him, over Zoom, about joining a group that includes Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry at centre ice. Add Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, skilled wingers Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp and Blake Wheeler, and a blue line that might just be greater than the sum of its parts, and it's the stuff of Stanley Cup dreams.

Pierre-Luc Dubois is the total package, a complete, two-way player at the all-important centre position.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Pierre-Luc Dubois is the total package, a complete, two-way player at the all-important centre position.

For all the hand-wringing over trading a disgruntled Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic — and I'm on record as saying the sad, public way that saga played out is a bad off-ice look for the organization — there's no disputing the Jets got a hell of a hockey player in return.

In fact, I believe time will eventually show they got the best all-around player in the blockbuster.

Sure, Laine might score more highlight-reel goals, and he already has three in four games with Columbus (they've gone 2-2-0). He was also benched by coach John Tortorella for the second half of Monday’s game after missing a defensive assignment. And yes, Roslovic may blossom with his hometown Blue Jackets, with an increased opportunity that wasn't going to happen here – including playing on a line with Laine – and already putting up seven points in seven games, including a beautiful game-winning goal late in the third period Monday (they've gone 4-3-0).

But Dubois is the total package, a more complete, two-way player at the all-important centre position who gives Maurice the kind of options that would have every coach foaming at the mouth. He will make those around him better, be a difference-maker at both ends of the ice, and gives the Jets a better chance to win on a nightly basis than Laine and Roslovic individually could. Which is the most important statistic of all.

Dubois (left), the third-overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, has 66 goals, 93 assists and 159 points in his first 239 NHL games. Mark Scheifele (right), the seventh-overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, had 64 goals, 93 assists and 157 points in his first 239 NHL games.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dubois (left), the third-overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, has 66 goals, 93 assists and 159 points in his first 239 NHL games. Mark Scheifele (right), the seventh-overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, had 64 goals, 93 assists and 157 points in his first 239 NHL games.

Consider this: Lowry, Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault formed Winnipeg's most effective trio in the 4-1 victory over the Flames last Thursday, putting up six combined points and shutting down Calgary's offensive weapons. They were the third line in that game. Now, with Dubois joining the fold, they are the fourth line.

That, folks, is what you call depth. Serious, major-league depth.

Dubois, who starts on a line with Connor and gritty veteran Trevor Lewis, also brings a new dynamic to this organization that is going to be fascinating to watch unfold. We've all grown used to the fact that Scheifele is the No. 1 centre in this town. It's a title he rightfully earned starting in the 2015-16 season, when he passed Bryan Little on both the scoring list and depth chart and never looked back.

As Little's play began to decline and the Jets tried out a rotating cast of characters at the 2C position — Stastny, Kevin Hayes, Cody Eakin, Wheeler, back to Little and back to Stastny, among others — Scheifele's top dog status has never been challenged.

Dubois will start on a line with Kyle Connor and Trevor Lewis.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dubois will start on a line with Kyle Connor and Trevor Lewis.

Until now.

Dubois is bigger and faster than Scheifele, not to mention five years younger. And he's going to have a far better supporting cast here in Winnipeg than he did in Columbus. It may not be long until we're talking about Dubois not only being Winnipeg's top centre, but also its best player. Period. He's that good, and his best years are still very much to come.

Consider this: Scheifele, the seventh-overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, had 64 goals, 93 assists and 157 points in his first 239 NHL games. Dubois, the third-overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, has 66 goals, 93 assists and 159 points in his first 239 NHL games.

Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff can only hope Scheifele and Dubois become what Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are to each other in Edmonton — superstar teammates who push each other to be better. Unlike the top-heavy and deeply flawed Oilers, the Jets actually have other high-end skaters to play with their top two centres.

Nikolaj Ehlers, Andrew Copp, and Pierre-Luc Dubois talk with associate coach Jamie Kompon during practice Monday morning.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nikolaj Ehlers, Andrew Copp, and Pierre-Luc Dubois talk with associate coach Jamie Kompon during practice Monday morning.

The big challenge for Maurice will be finding enough minutes for everyone, which I'd file under "Good Problems To Have." But in a 56-game campaign with a compacted schedule, the timing couldn't be better. Short, effective shifts and the ability to truly roll four lines is a valuable weapon in any season, but especially this unique one. Scheifele will remain, for now, with linemates of Ehlers and Copp, while Stastny and Wheeler play with the young Kristian Vesalainen.

In addition to Scheifele, Dubois, Stastny and Lowry, they have other up-the-middle options this year including the versatile Copp, the injured Nate Thompson, the injured Jansen Harkins, and 20-year-old David Gustafsson, who's been called the "Swedish Adam Lowry" and is being groomed to be a regular shutdown centre.

That allows for intriguing possibilities going forward, including moving someone like Dubois or Stastny to the wing to load up a line or two. Similar to how Dave Tippett will put McDavid and Draisaitl together, at times, when his team needs a spark, or a goal.

Sure, Stastny and Lowry are pending UFAs, but Winnipeg also has 19-year-old centre Cole Perfetti, the 10th-overall pick in last year's draft, in the pipeline. They are rock-solid at that position for the foreseeable future — especially if Dubois ultimately signs long-term in Winnipeg (he's under team control until the 2023-24 season).

Dubois is going to have a far better supporting cast here in Winnipeg than he did with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dubois is going to have a far better supporting cast here in Winnipeg than he did with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Cheveldayoff took a big risk when he pulled the trigger and traded Laine, who he knew he was likely to bolt in free agency. And the true verdict won't come down until we see if one or both of Dubois and Laine, who can become a UFA after the 2022-23 season, are long for their new hockey homes.

But there's no doubt the Jets that will take on the Flames Tuesday at Scotiabank Saddledome are a deep and dangerous group. With Dubois now finally able to start making on-ice contributions, it may not be long until we start viewing him as the best of a very talented bunch.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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