By John Wawrow
TORONTO (AP) — It’s nearing the end of a long day of promotional on-ice videos and lengthy interviews with one group of reporters after another, when Pierre-Luc Dubois strides confidently into the hotel conference room with a beaming smile and outreached hand.
Whatever lingering frustrations and disappointments the Jets forward might carry from what was essentially a lost season in Winnipeg last year have been altered by the perspective of time.
Traded to the Jets by Columbus in January, Dubois still isn’t pleased with how poorly he performed during his first season in Winnipeg. The 23-year-old, however, is comforted by having a better grasp of how and why things quickly derailed, leaving him looking forward to the Jets opening training camp this week.
“This year we move on,” Dubois said during the NHL/NHLPA’s annual preseason player media tour. “To say I’m excited would be an understatement.”
The new season presents Dubois with an opportunity to start over on a team and in a city he got to know only on a peripheral basis — and still couldn’t tell you where the Jets practice facility is because the team was limited to working out at its home arena.
A combination of the NHL’s COVID-19 restrictions, cross-border self-isolation rules and a string of injuries left him essentially a stranger in a new land.
Whether it was being cooped up playing solitaire in his hotel room, restricted to Face-Timing with family and friends, and limited to seeing his teammates at practice, game days or while traveling, Dubois never once felt like his extroverted self.
“It’s funny, like all these questions here today are like, `Which teammates does this?′ I honestly have no idea,” Dubois said.
“To me there’s nothing like bonding, going for dinner, all the guys together, you know, having a beer or two, talking. And we didn’t have those last year,” he said. “So that’s another reason why I feel like I’m new. I feel like the guys don’t really know who I am, and I feel like I don’t really know the guys.”
Selected third overall by Columbus in the 2016 draft, Dubois is focused on reintroducing himself as the impact player the Jets were counting on acquiring in what was supposed to be a blockbuster trade that sent Patrik Laine (the second overall pick in 2016) to Columbus.
At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Dubois had 65 goals and 158 points in 234 games through his first three seasons with the Blue Jackets before asking to be traded once his relationship soured with then-Columbus coach John Tortorella.
Already feeling behind after losing time in the offseason working out because his gym and rink in Quebec were closed because of the pandemic, Dubois spent his first two weeks in Winnipeg under mandatory self-isolation. A few weeks following his debut, he was sidelined by a lower body injury.
He finished with eight goals and 20 points in 41 regular-season games. Hurt again once the playoffs began, he had three assists in seven games before the Jets were swept in the second round by Montreal.
With the gyms and rinks open in Quebec, Dubois used the offseason as a time to “reset,” as he called it, by dedicating his summer to working out.
Jets coach Paul Maurice is encouraged by the report he received from the team’s strength and conditioning coach regarding Dubois being in top shape. Maurice is even more impressed hearing the self-awareness Dubois has shown in openly confronting what went wrong last season.
“There were a lot of things that kind of worked against him,” Maurice said.
“Sometimes a young player, a gifted player, has a lot of success early and they may never feel they have to grow anymore and it kind of stunts him,” he added. “I’ve got lots of faith in this young man.”
Dubios is already looking ahead to the Jets opening their season in Anaheim next month.
Anticipating the NHL’s COVID-19 restrictions to be loosened, he’s already envisioning having a team bonding session by playing volleyball on the beach followed by dinner.
He’s beginning to feel like himself again.
“I feel like the normal Pierre-Luc Dubois and not the guy that’s preoccupied about getting back into shape, preoccupied about fitting in,” he said.
“A lot of things that I never experienced in my life all happened at the same time. So now, this year, to go to camp and, `OK, I know what to expect,’” Dubois added. “This is the real me. The real Pierre-Luc Dubois is back.”