BUFFALO, NY – Ville Siren, Blue Jackets head amateur scout, strode to the podium at First Niagara Center and let out a phrase that few in the crowd expected to hear.
“The Columbus Blue Jackets are proud to select, from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Pierre-Luc Dubois.”
There was a surprised gasp in the bowl. On media row, there were heads turning and an equally-palpable feeling of shock. The only place you would not find shock and surprise was at the Blue Jackets’ draft table, where instead, the feeling was quite the opposite: they were elated to select the best available player on their list.
Some referred to the Dubois selection as a defiance of conventional wisdom, but GM Jarmo Kekalainen respectfully refers to such references as opinion. Within their inner circle, there was no suspense, dramatics or controversy – they knew exactly who they were picking at No. 3 overall.
“That’s the guy we had our eye on all year long,” Kekalainen said of Dubois. “Our scouts loved him. He’s everything we were looking for: he’s a smart, skilled, big player with a lot of character and leadership qualities.”
“With all due respect to everybody’s opinion, I don’t think any team in the league is going to reveal their list, so all those mocks and things are based on people who do this for a living – but not like we do,” Kekalainen continued. “We watch hundreds of games all year long, do our homework and due diligence, and that’s what we rely on. That’s our job, our livelihood and the way we do this business."
The list, compiled after a year’s worth of watching games, traveling around the world to numerous tournaments, showcases and interviews, plus meetings at the mid-term and year-end, told Kekalainen that taking Dubois – their best player available – was likely at No. 3, but if he could make a trade to move down, acquire additional picks and still get Dubois, he would do it.
He explored a variety of possibilities, and despite a wealth of buzz, rumors and anticipation, nothing materialized. But when you’re under the lights of the NHL Draft, there isn’t much room to hide.
Kekalainen was spotted in conversations with Calgary GM Brad Treliving (who held the No. 6 overall pick) and then with Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, who was picking one spot behind the Blue Jackets at No. 4.
From those discussions, it was clear to Kekalainen that moving back further than the fourth pick would put the prospect of selecting Dubois in jeopardy. Media speculation mounted that both the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens were in hot pursuit of Dubois.
The best option became clear: the Blue Jackets would keep the No. 3 pick and select the top player on their list.
“We didn’t want to take any chances,” Kekalainen said. “Dubois was our guy at No. 3 and we didn’t want to take a chance to lose him. We were happy to get the guy we wanted.”
Hockey insiders Bob McKenzie and Craig Button, working for NBC Sports Network during Friday night’s broadcast, expressed some surprise at the Blue Jackets’ first selection but knew exactly why Dubois was Kekalainen’s primary target.
“He’s a big guy, he plays a 200-foot game and he can really skate,” McKenzie said of Dubois, who turned 18 on draft night.
“I think of a guy like Jamie Benn – a power (and) skill combination. That excellent shot. The ability that, when they get open (to shoot), it comes right off the stick and past the goaltender,” Button said.
“Dubois has that, and we’ve seen it many times from Jamie Benn. When you’re trying to get into position and get that shot past a goaltender quickly, it becomes very difficult to defend against him. He’s an exceptionally smart player.”
Hockey sense and character are two intangibles that Kekalainen and his scouts value above all others, and in Dubois, they saw both in spades. The intelligence factor was none more evident than in Dubois’ hastened-yet-productive move to center midway through the season, when he took on more responsibility and still managed to increase his offensive output.
“When he moved to center, he played his best hockey at center,” Kekalainen said. “I think he would acknowledge that. He had no problem doing it. Usually it’s not an easy transition, especially from a defensive point of view, but he showed us that he has tremendous hockey sense in smoothly moving from wing to center, slowly getting better at face-offs all season.
“We see him as a centerman, and we see a lot of potential there.”