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Is Pierre-Luc Dubois in Montreal a realistic dream?

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A homegrown talent wants to come to Montreal. Do the Canadiens have the right cards to pull it off?

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL season is barely under way and there’s already a divorce brewing in Columbus between star forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and head coach John Tortorella. Dubois is coming off a contentious off-season where he wanted a big-money contract, but the Blue Jackets seemed unwilling to budge on that front, somewhat reminiscent of the P.K. Subban standoff with Marc Bergevin heading into the 2013 season. In the end, Dubois signed a two-year deal worth $5 million per season, which was an extreme value for the Blue Jackets.

Then as opening night loomed, news broke that despite the new deal, Dubois wanted out of the state of Ohio, which was corroborated by head coach Tortorella. It has been reported that Dubois indicated that a trade to Montreal is something he’d prefer.

The play of the Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts native has consistently trended upward since he was drafted. At 22 years old, with the type of game that he plays, there is still a lot of runway ahead.

It is true to an extent that Dubois was carried by the prowess of Artemiy Panarin last year. While he was already an effective top-six centre, Dubois still showed a few bad habits, forcing plays, both passes and dangles, through opponents. By attracting the defence with his skill, Panarin created space for Dubois in situations where the young forward couldn’t. The Russian superstar allowed his centre to become a dangerous off-puck threat, to attack the slot, and fire off passes or finish tic-tac-toe plays at the net.

In 2019-20, with the departure of Panarin, Dubois took steps forward as a creator, especially below the goal line. He learned to position himself outside of the defensive box to use the width of the ice to free himself from the opposition, receive passes, and send them back to teammates in the slot. The puck spent less time on his stick in the offensive zone, which paradoxically kept him more at the centre of the action due to his ability to reposition in space.

Pierre-Luc Dubois wears #18 with the Columbus Blue-Jackets

Dubois isn’t necessarily a threatening shooter from a standstill. He plays the power play half-wall in Columbus and scores from that position, but his best shots are the ones he makes under defensive pressure. He can fire the puck in-stride and elevate it past goalies even when it sits some distance in front of him. Off the rush, coming in through the faceoff-circle, goalies can get beaten short-side above the shoulder by his unexpected releases.

Dubois’s wall and net-front play are the other main strengths of his offensive game. His two-step acceleration is impressive, and not just for his size. He can catch rimmed pucks with his backhand, sprint toward the slot, and break inside before the defence can wall his path. Around the cage, Dubois isn’t exactly John Tavares yet, but he has learned to spin and uses his rear-end well to create enough room to get his stick on flying pucks.

Dubois is a better offensive threat than he is a defensive one, as illustrated by the shot charts below. He creates shots for his team o at a high-rate, but also gives up more on the defensive side.

HockeyViz.com

His defence is more based on pressure than clever reads. Place him in a sound defensive structure and he can thrive as the defensive initiator. He is at his best on the forecheck and when he can sweep in, win battles for his defenceman, and launch the play up ice. But ask him to rapidly close breaches and he might create a few more in the process. Still, he is well equipped to handle top competition every night with his speed, range, and physicality.

We see what kind of player Dubois is, and how he continues to evolve at the NHL level in a top-six role. The cost to acquire him is going to be steep — and it should be because it’s not every day that a 22-year-old centre in his prime becomes available on the trade market. Luckily for the Canadiens, there’s a huge amount of leverage on their side in potential negotiations, given that Dubois has made it clear he wants out, and Columbus now has to find a way to move the unhappy forward.

In talking with Blue Jackets writers, the thought process is very clear: the team is likely going to want a young NHL player, a near-ready NHL prospect, and a pick in return. Nick Kypreos alluded to Columbus wanting both Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov, which is an immediate non-starter for Marc Bergevin.

Brian Hedger mentions that the interest might be around Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Victor Mete instead of Suzuki and Romanov, which feels like it might be a bit more palatable for Habs fans. The big problem with that sort of deal is that the Canadiens do not have the cap space to make it work, given that Kotkaniemi and Mete combined make less than $1.7 million, leaving the Habs to find $3 million more to fit Dubois on their roster.

Another option is to build a package around Phillip Danault, which might require more futures in the deal compared to one around Kotkaniemi. Danault wants to play top-six minutes, and be paid accordingly, a right he has earned given his play. However, the rapid emergence of Suzuki and the continual growth of Kotkaniemi have made his top-six spot anything but assured in the future.

Danault is an ideal fit for John Tortorella: a defensively responsible player who eats up tough minutes every night without sacrificing offence either. As some Blue Jackets writers point out though, there’s a dynamic element missing from Danault’s game, and the soon-to-be 28-year-old wouldn’t be the centrepiece in a deal. It more than likely starts with draft picks, of which the Canadiens have 14 for the 2021 Draft, and then some kind of top prospect in the organization. That could include one of Cole Caufield, Kaiden Guhle, and Mattias Norlinder. Looking quickly at the Blue Jackets’ depth, they’re not in a position to refuse any of the above players, so it places the ball firmly in the Canadiens’ court in deciding who is, and isn’t, expendable.

Then there’s always the option to add in another NHL player if they don’t want to pay up with a Caufield-calibre prospect. It’s a trade that could be very similar to the one that sent Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher, and the 31st overall pick to Colorado.

It’s not going to be cheap no matter how you slice it, and considering Dubois’s immense talent and potential career growth any suitor will know that going into any discussions.

Projecting Dubois into Montreal’s plans is easy. He would improve all 31 NHL teams with his skill set, but he fits even better inside a team that plays a counter-attacking, pacey, forechecking style of offence. He would have many opportunities to score in such a system. Through his rapid crossover rushes, his below-the-goal line playmaking, and his inside game, he would help the Habs strike hard and fast.

I’m of two minds on this trade, in that acquiring Dubois gives the Habs two bona fide stud centres when you add him to Suzuki, and if they could avoid surrendering Kotkaniemi they might have some of the best young depth down the middle in the league. It’s more and more likely however that it is going to cost Kotkaniemi and more to get this trade finalized. Are the Canadiens willing to pull the trigger and bring in Dubois, whose ceiling is likely projected pretty clearly, and lose Kotkaniemi whose ceiling isn’t quite defined yet in the NHL?

The same thought can be applied to a prospect like Caufield as well, and I’m more hesitant to surrender a player like him due to the Habs not truly having a similar scoring replacement in the system. In all, it’s a difficult situation for Bergevin; no matter what he gives up, it will be a highly valuable piece. But in return you’re getting a potential star who wants to play for your team.

The leverage lies with the Canadiens if they want to pursue a deal, and the right move could push the franchise to the next level.