Pierre Luc-Dubois needs to be a horse of a different colour this season.
The 6-3, 220-pound forward has, for years, heard the comparison, a reference to his stature, power and dependability. So, it was no great surprise to hear the Winnipeg Jets captain go with the same equine characterization Thursday.
"He's a horse. He's a guy that can make a real difference for our team, there's no question," Blake Wheeler gushed Thursday. "It was a tough year for him. As a young player to get traded, new surroundings, new team, new teammates, in the middle of everything we were going through last year — it's tough. A lot on his plate. I think you see a guy who's excited just about having a fresh start playing the game. Obviously, he's going to get a great opportunity here to flourish."
Indeed, in his first season in a Jets jersey Dubois was a far cry from the thoroughbred most believe he is; the stud that supplied four goals and 10 points in 10 dominating post-season games with the Columbus Blue Jackets inside the 2020 playoff bubble.
Yet, after a headline-grabbing spat with his former coach in Columbus, a blockbuster trade, isolated pandemic quarantine and injuries, the third-overall draft choice from 2016 fit about as well as a square peg in a round hole with the Central Division squad.
He finished with eight goals and 12 assists in 41 games, demonstrating only flashes of excellence in an otherwise forgettable campaign. In seven playoff games, he chipped in three assists and was virtually invisible for the most part while the Jets swept past the Edmonton Oilers before getting dumped four straight by the Montreal Canadiens.
Dubois said while he didn't offer Jets fans much in the way of a first impression, he's excited for a second chance.
"Last year didn’t go as I wanted to but I know what player I am, what kind of game I can play," he said Thursday. "To be able to go back this summer and watch games of the past of what I’ve done and get back to my normal self — my normal self, physically, and my normal self mentally. I felt good and am looking forward to the season."
After getting swapped from the Blue Jackets to the Jets in exchange for Patrik Laine, Dubois spent two weeks in quarantine. He did some workouts at home but couldn't skate and was afforded no time to acclimatize to the Jets systems. He finally suited up in early February, played a pair of games and then got hurt and missed four.
The son of Manitoba Moose coach Eric Dubois said he never felt a rhythm during the '21 season but has returned to top physical shape and is reinvigorated about his future.
"Me and my trainer sat down at the beginning of the summer and we made a plan (about) how can we get me back into shape. I felt good (Thursday)," he said. "So to come to see what training camp is like, to be able to skate, to be able to get out there with the guys, and preseason games and scrimmages that we do pretty much every day, it’s going to be beneficial for the season. Like I said, I still feel like a new guy here. After this camp, I’m sure I’ll feel more like I’m part of the team because I went through camp with them.
"I mean, last year, I don’t want to come up with excuses, but I love working out, a big part of my game is being in shape, is tracking up and down the ice, is winning my battles. It takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of effort. I think that was a big part of my game that I was lacking. So, to come here into camp, I feel good, my weight is back where I want it to be. I had a really good summer, and frankly, every summer I get back, I spent my summer in Montreal, I know I’m going to get to camp in good shape. I feel really good right now. There is no extra pressure in that sense. I know how I feel, I know that I’m ready to go. I’m looking for this camp, for preseason games and for the season to start."
The left-shooting centre was situated between Andrew Copp and Nikolaj Ehlers in the Jets' first on-ice session of training camp and set up the speedy Dane for a pretty tally during the scrimmage.
Head coach Paul Maurice said he's been impressed by Dubois' willingness to take ownership of a disappointing season, adding he's excited about the impact the power forward could make one of the team's top forward units.
"He’s been really, really open. My advice to him now is it’s been handled, he stood in front of the microphones and answered those questions. But you can also tell he worked hard this summer. He wins the shirt-off test. He’s fit. He’s hard. He’s put time in to be a better player this year," said Maurice. "You just watch him in practice, he’s moving different, he’s covering more ice. He’s stronger. So we can move on, we think."
As for the horse moniker, Dubois said he's ready to live up to the billing.
"Last year, I kinda felt like I wanted to be the horse, but I felt, physically, I wasn’t in the shaped I needed to be where I needed to be to be that guy," he said. "This year, it’s not extra pressure, I don’t think it’s not owing anybody anything, I think it’s just being me, being who I am, the guy that was in Columbus that (the Jets) traded for..."
The only part of his game that won't be his entirely is the number on his jersey. He's wearing No. 80 to honour his former teammate, the late Matiss Kivlenieks who died tragically in a fireworks accident this summer at the age of 24.
"One of the sad parts of the whole story was that he was at the beginning of his career. I talked to my dad and said, ‘What can I do? What’s maybe one thing I can do to stretch his legacy out?’ I obviously can’t wear his last name on my back but one thing I can do is to use his number," said Dubois. "For me, I want to have No. 80 for the rest of my career. It’s never going to be my number, it’s always going to be his that I’m just borrowing."
Assistant sports editor
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