Pierre-Luc Dubois was wiping away sweat from his forehead, moments after wrapping up practice Friday and with the Winnipeg Jets still waiting to know who their second-round opponent will be, when he was asked to go over his entire season.
In a way, Dubois has already provided that answer many times this year. In what’s been an up-and-down season for the 22-year-old centre, the question seemingly comes up every week. They almost always carry a tone of concern; or, at the least, with a hint at when exactly it’ll all turn around for the No. 3 overall pick in 2016.
Such is life as a professional athlete, especially when you carry the level of hype and skill that Dubois brought to the Jets after he was acquired in a trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets that saw Patrik Laine go the other way. In a hockey town expectations are high and when they’re not met, the same troubling narrative can often rear its ugly head.
Like any good centreman, Dubois anticipated the play and answered as if he’d been thinking the same thing himself.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs this year and it hasn’t been the easiest year, with two injures. I haven’t been injured in my life and this year there’s two," he said.
"You can learn from everything. I still know my game isn’t necessarily where I know it can be and where it should be. I’m somebody who puts a lot of pressure on himself and has a lot of expectations, but you just keep working in practice."
It made sense to focus on the playoffs rather than dive too deep into the past.
Dubois played just five games with the Blue Jackets this year, registering a single goal, before he got his wish to be traded. When he arrived in Winnipeg he had to quarantine for two weeks. He played two games before a lower-body injury kept him out another 10 days. While he had flashes of brilliance mixed with mostly underwhelming performances over the ensuing months, the injury bug would come to bite him again in the final regular-season game.
Just like that, he was ruled out of Game 1 in the Jets opening-round series against the Edmonton Oilers after taking a puck to the head.
"At least I played Game 2 and just missed the one," Dubois said. "Game 2, for me personally, was just OK. Game 3, I thought I had a better game and Game 4 was OK also."
While Dubois is still searching for his best game with the Jets, he’s no stranger to excelling in the playoffs. Few had as memorable a series as Dubois against the Maple Leafs last season.
Dubois dominated the Leafs for long stretches during their preliminary-round series, playing a hard 200-foot game. In Game 3, with the best-of-five series tied at one game apiece, Dubois put the Blue Jackets on his back, scoring three goals, including the winner in a 4-3 overtime victory. Columbus won the series in Game 5, 3-0.
The Jackets went on to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the next round, falling in five games. Dubois ended that stretch with another six points (1G, 5A).
"In the playoffs, scoring goals and getting assists is fun but every little detail matters and a lot of them don’t appear on the stat sheet. People don’t even see it," Dubois said. "But at the end of the day, it’s about winning and doing something right, whether it’s a good stick, or good body position, that can be the difference between a win and a loss. Winning in the playoffs is a lot more complex."
Dubois was productive upon his most recent return for the playoffs. Playing wing on a second line with Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers, he finished with two assists in three games. Both came in a pivotal Game 3 victory, and both were on the power play.
The Jets have given Dubois an opportunity to flourish. He’s played centre alongside the team’s best wingers in Ehlers and Kyle Connor. When he seemed to struggle with the Jets systems, he was moved to the wing to lighten his responsibility in the defensive zone.
Simply put, the Jets are doing what they can to get the most out of him. And they certainly have shown him patience — and will continue to do so.
"One of the things he hasn’t been able to do is play with a consistent line and play a consistent position. It felt right, kind of, when he went right back into the middle there, halfway through Game 3, he looked more comfortable," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said.
"But that wasn’t the driver. It was actually Nik Ehlers. Nikky likes being on the right side, so we moved him there. That was kind of the impetus behind the change and then he’s comfortable there. He just keeps building."
He added: "The longer we can play, the more we’re going to see of what he’s capable of doing."
That move in Game 3 will stick heading into the second round, with the Jets playing the winner between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. Dubois has been practising this week at centre, between Stastny and Ehlers, and will stay there for the upcoming series.
Dubois said he’s most comfortable at centre, a position he feels more engaged in the game because it keeps his feet moving. The Jets will need him to be a major contributor if they hope to go on a deep run, whether that’s racking up points or playing a consistently effective game that shows up in other areas.
Needless to say, the expectations remain high for Dubois — including those he puts on himself. He understands he has the chance to flip the script on his season.
"Where my career took off and when I became the player that I am was when I moved to centre," he said.
"Now’s the time to get your game where you want it to be and when the second round starts, it’s a new game and that’s what I’m trying to work on right now."
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.