There’s no reason to panic just yet. But the fact Pierre-Luc Dubois prefers to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to his future with the Winnipeg Jets should be ringing plenty of alarm bells within the organization.
The power centre, who turns 24 this week, is exactly the kind of player True North should be trying to build a Stanley Cup contender around. Losing him to unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024, or being forced to trade him before then rather than see him walk away for nothing in return, would be an unmitigated disaster.
Both of those potential scenarios are suddenly on the radar after news emerged this week that Dubois, a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, appears unwilling to sign a long-term extension right now. Rather, we’re told, his current plan is to continue to build his value over the next two seasons he remains under Winnipeg’s control, then test the waters of the open market.
Uh-oh. Cue the "Jaws" music.
To be clear, there’s nothing at this stage to indicate Dubois has soured on the Jets and already has one foot out the door. In fact, I’d say his play last year is that of someone who cares deeply about the franchise and is willing to do whatever it takes to have success. He was one of the few players who brought it nearly every night, his give-a-darn meter always dialled sky-high. The third-overall pick from the 2016 NHL draft scored a career-high 28 goals along with 32 assists, and was also among the league leaders in penalties taken (106 minutes) and penalties drawn.
Dubois also carried himself like a leader off the ice, repeatedly facing the media and telling it like it was as the losses and frustration mounted. He sure looked and sounded like a future captain or alternate captain, which could happen sooner than later depending on what the club does with both Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele in this all-important offseason.
The Quebec product — whose father, Eric, is an assistant coach with the Manitoba Moose — also showed commitment to his craft, and his country, by joining Canada at the World Hockey Championship in May. Dubois helped lead them to a silver medal and was named to the tournament’s all-star team after posting 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 10 games.
It’s understandable why Dubois wouldn’t want to rush into anything right now by signing a seven- or eight-year extension, which Winnipeg would love to get his name on in the same way they’ve locked up other core pieces including Wheeler, Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Adam Lowry and Connor Hellebuyck.
The salary cap, frozen last year at US$81.5 million, is only going up by $1 million next year. But there’s a widespread belief around the league it could be in for a significant jump in another year or two. It would make sense — not to mention dollars and cents — for Dubois to see if he might be able to cash in by taking a piece of a much bigger pie, especially since he’s not even in his hockey prime, yet. He made US$5 million in each of the past two years, but is due for a significant raise.
Still, it creates a bit of an uneasy feeling around here, especially on a Jets team that has seen this movie play out a few times before. Jacob Trouba also balked at a deal and eventually had to be moved. Same for Andrew Copp, who had originally been willing to sign long-term only to be told that wasn’t possible due to a salary crunch. Eventually, he opted to bet on himself, and it’s going to pay off handsomely this summer. No doubt Dubois, along with plenty of other players around the league, were watching with great interest.
Assuming this isn’t a bargaining ploy by his agent and Dubois truly only intends to ink a two-year pact that would walk him right into UFA status (or, alternatively, a one-year contract which would allow everyone to re-visit the situation at this time next summer), the level of urgency within the Jets should be rising considerably.
We know general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, fresh off getting a three-year contract extension, is trying to re-tool on the fly after a disappointing campaign in which his team missed the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 years. A more dramatic rebuild, which would include selling off key pieces, is not currently on the table. Nor should it be in the NHL’s smallest market, which failed to sell out a single game last year.
We also know the Jets are thinking big, which is why prized free-agent coach Barry Trotz has been their prime target. Landing the Dauphin product would send a strong message of just how serious Winnipeg truly is about getting right back to championship contender status. The 59-year-old wouldn’t be coming here to play the long game, but rather to contribute to a "win-now" mentality.
But time is of the essence, especially with the Dubois situation now hanging over the organization. With Wheeler, Scheifele, Hellebuyck and defencemen Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo also set to become UFAs after the 2023-24 season, this coming year will be pivotal regarding the direction of the team. Some tough decisions are going to have to be made, which is why both Wheeler and Scheifele’s names are already blowing through the NHL rumour mills.
Life sure moves fast, doesn’t it?
When Dubois was obtained from Columbus in January 2021 in exchange for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, the Jets looked to have the kind of elite centre depth most teams can only dream of. Now, less than 18 months later, they’re facing the possibility of not having Dubois or Scheifele around much longer.
There will be some who want to paint this as another sign there’s something in the Winnipeg water that has talented players trying to get a one-way ticket out of town as quickly as possible. I don’t buy that, given the long list of talents that have made River City their long-term hockey home.
In a salary cap league, where every team has to play by the same set of rules, there’s only so much money to go around. The bottom line for most athletes is a good fit where they can achieve personal and team success. They just want to win, while obviously, making the best living possible. There’s nothing sinister about that.
Dubois has every right to exercise patience. Now, the pressure is on the Jets organization to do everything possible to show him the grass isn’t going to be greener anywhere else.
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.