As I’ve quickly come to learn, it doesn’t take much to get Nate Schmidt going. The Winnipeg Jets defenceman is a ball of non-stop energy who is ready, willing and eager to chat about any subject under the sun. He oozes character and charisma and is a heck of quote, to boot.
Still, even I was a bit surprised to see just how Schmidt’s eyes lit up the other day when I asked for his take on one of his new teammates. No need for a nationwide search — the Pierre-Luc Dubois fan club has its chapter president and public relations director raring to go.
"The sky’s the limit for Pierre," Schmidt told me as he launched into a lengthy monologue singing the praises of the 23-year-old Dubois, singling out his impressive mix of size and speed and how effectively he’s been able to use it over the first couple weeks of the new campaign. "He’s taken his game to another level."
Indeed he has. Dubois has scored in four straight games, the first time he’s managed that in his young career, and has six points through his first five games. It’s quite a turnaround for a guy who ended last season getting blanked in 24 straight contests (17 regular-season games and seven playoff tilts) and seemed to be skating on eggshells every time he came over the boards.
There’s a confidence, dare I say swagger, to Dubois’ game right now. As if the third-overall pick of the 2016 NHL draft is starting to realize just how dangerous he can be.
"I’m trying to make a difference and trying to dominate every shift I can," he said Monday.
So far, so good. He’s using his big body to his advantage, wearing down opponents and creating time and space on the ice like the true power forward he is. The puck seems to be on a string of late, and he’s started to shoot it more rather than defer to the pass like he often did in the recent past. He’s driving hard to the net, and staying there, which has been rewarded. As Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey told me Monday, a guy like Dubois can be a nightmare to defend, and he’s happy he only has to do it during practice.
This "transformation" as Morrissey called it couldn’t come at a better time for a Jets club that is without two of its most potent offensive players, with No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele and captain Blake Wheeler both testing positive for COVID-19. Scheifele has missed the past two games, Wheeler the past three. But the Jets have gone 2-0-1 in that span and scored 16 goals, thanks in no small part to Dubois.
Dubois had admitted how important the mental side of the game is, and what a heavy toll last year took on him. From the end of his tenure in Columbus, which included a well-publicized benching from his bully of a former coach, John Tortorella, to the surprising trade, the mandatory quarantine that followed, a lack of practice time with his new club due to the condensed schedule to a string of injuries that hampered his play.
I don’t care what you do for a living or how much money you make, that’s bound to impact any human being.
Dubois should be applauded for using this summer to get in the best shape of his life. He’s a muscular mountain of a man who also appears faster than ever, especially now when he’s on an intriguing new makeshift line with two other first-rounders in Kyle Connor and Evgeny Svechnikov. That speedy, skilled trio was Winnipeg’s most dangerous in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Nashville, and they’ll look to keep the good times rolling as the club begins a three-game California road trip tonight in Anaheim.
Connor, who normally plays with Scheifele and Wheeler, has clearly benefitted from the chemistry. He is the only Jets skater hotter than Dubois, with five goals and three assists in the last three games which led to him being named the NHL’s first star on Monday.
Dubois seems to recognize a couple good weeks does not a career make. And the key, as is almost always the case for young players, is consistency. In that sense, he’s hardly taking a victory lap despite his strong start.
"It’s a really long season and I don’t want to fall in the trap of feeling too good, but my confidence is definitely getting to a spot where I want it to be," he said.
With increased success will come increased expectations, which Dubois appears ready to embrace. Maurice noted they’re still trying to figure out exactly what they have in this unique player, who still has plenty of room to grow his game. But there’s no question the bar has been raised.
After saying all the right things about making the most of a clean slate and a fresh start this fall, Dubois is now walking the walk. This is the player general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hoped he was getting when he swung the biggest trade of his tenure last January, sending the beloved Patrik Laine along with Jack Roslovic the other way.
It will be a few years before we can fully assess the true fallout from the blockbuster. But if Dubois keeps playing like this, it won’t matter what the other two guys ultimately do with the Blue Jackets. The Jets will have themselves a winner, and the sky-high expectations that Schmidt and so many others have will be met, if not exceeded.
"The best part about it is now this is kind of what we expect," said Schmidt.
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.