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Dubois' physical nature a true strength for Blue Jackets

20-year-old center using size to drive Columbus' top line

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

When Pierre-Luc Dubois was a few years younger and about 50 pounds lighter, two of his favorite players to study were Patrick Kane and Henrik Zetterberg - two players who weren't the NHL's biggest but still found ways to keep the puck away from the strongest defensemen in the league.

Now, as he builds his game in his second NHL season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dubois watches Anze Kopitar, the sturdily built Slovenian center who has been one of the best centers in the NHL for more than a decade.

Video: OTT@CBJ: Dubois pots second goal off defender

Put Kane in Kopitar's body and do you have another Mario Lemieux?

OK, comparing a young French-Canadian to one of the greatest to ever play the game is a bit much, so how about calling Dubois the Blue Jackets' version of Frank Sinatra?

After all, he's the chairman of the boards - a player who can go into a wall battle, win it more often than not, and pull away with the puck while leaving a defensive player in his wake. 

"One of the better things of his game that has surprised me is the amount of work that he does on the boards as far as stopping and starting, trying to get himself off the boards - this is with the puck - the amount of work he does there, and then when he has a chance to accelerate out of there, how quickly he can get out of there," Columbus head coach John Tortorella said. 

"I think it's a testament to his conditioning because it's tiresome trying to juke a guy and then accelerate out of there. He's one of the better players I've seen as far as accelerating off of the boards."

Winning those board battles isn't always glamorous - that hard work is often cut out of the highlight before it gets seen by millions online or on TV - but it does lead to goals. 

Columbus' win Monday vs. Ottawa was proof positive of how Dubois can use his physical capabilities to create offense. In the second period, after taking a pass in his defensive zone, he chipped the puck off the wall to himself and left the defender in the dust, getting the puck into the offensive zone before a cross-ice pass to Artemi Panarin. Panarin then found Zach Werenski cutting to the net for the team's first goal of the game.

Video: OTT@CBJ: Werenski one-times home cross-ice feed

Later, after Dubois' tap-in gave Columbus a 2-1 lead, the Quebec native created his own goal with his work along the boards. Dubois fended off two Senators while coming out from below the goal line, spun off a defender along the hashmarks, dug the puck out of the corner, then tried to let loose a shot from down low. It went wide of the target thanks to a stick check, but it pinballed off the skate of defenseman Cody Ceci and into the net.

Such plays have come to mark Dubois' game, one reason he's at home on the Blue Jackets' top line with Panarin and Cam Atkinson. The three have combined for 52 goals and 121 points, with Dubois putting in 16 goals and adding 20 assists himself.

"He does a lot of work for his two linemates," Tortorella said. "He is the main piece of that right now as far as making that work because he does a lot of things that a lot of people don't notice."

So where does that strength come from? Four years ago, he was 170 pounds at 16 years old when he was entering the QMJHL draft. Now, Dubois is a solidly built 6-3 and says he's now 220 pounds, and it's clear he's spent his fair share of time in the weight room. Dubois says he takes pride in the fact each time he goes to the gym and is able to add another five- or 10-pound weight to the bar.

The 20-year-old center also thinks his younger days when he wasn't nearly so big and strong helped mold his game. In his younger days, he had to think his way around the ice, giving him a reservoir of moves used by smaller players to win battles and create time and space.

Add it all up and you have a hockey player built to protect the puck and win battles along the wall.

"I've always been good on puck protection," he said. "That's always been one of my strengths, and then I grew and got bigger. When I was a kid, I wasn't the biggest kid. I was still good on puck protection, so I think once I got that strength, then I'm not just a big body. I can move out and have a good sense of where the guy is on my back. Even if I don't see him, I know where I can spin off of him.

"I think the fact that when I was a kid, I was small, I had to use my brain to protect the puck instead of just using my body because I was bigger than everyone. Now I can combine both."

Dubois had a standout rookie season ago with 20 goals and 28 assists, and his game has taken another step forward this season. One reason is he's now figuring out how to deploy all the tools in his arsenal, including his ability to engage players and win battles.

"I think last year it took me a little while to figure it out," Dubois said. "Before last game, I was talking to (assistant coach Kenny McCudden), and I told him that I think I have to use my size a bit more. Sometimes I kind of assume those 50-50s happen without me trying for them, without me making them happen. I can usually win those, but I think if I can create them myself, I can push the puck behind the D and try to push them out of the way, then I think I can be even more dangerous."

As good as Dubois is now, it's scary to think how much better he can be as he gets older and even experienced. The third overall pick in the 2016 draft has skill to match his size, and there's no reason to think he won't keep pushing into the upper echelon of centers in the NHL.

"It's amazing what he's accomplishing right now," Atkinson said. "There's a lot left in the tank with that kid, and I can't wait to see the level of potential he can eventually get to."

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