Jarmo Kekalainen knew. Back in 2016, the Columbus Blue Jackets were slated to pick third overall in the draft and to most outsiders, the selection was probably going to be a Finn like the GM himself. Auston Matthews was definitely going first to Toronto and Patrik Laine was almost certainly headed to Winnipeg at No. 2, leaving Jesse Puljujarvi for the Blue Jackets.
But Kekalainen and his crew weren’t hot on Puljujarvi and shocked many in attendance by taking center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Edmonton snapped up Puljujarvi with the fourth pick and since then, the youngster has been trying to find his way in the NHL, even spending this season back in Finland to get his mojo back. With every passing day, that choice by Kekalainen has looked more and more fantastic.
Dubois, now the franchise’s top center, was a big reason why Columbus took Game 1 of its qualifying round series against Toronto, nailing down the Leafs with a 2-0 victory. Eating up a steady diet of his draftmate Matthews, Dubois used his size, skating and tenacity to neutralize one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the league.
Coming into his draft year, Dubois wasn’t even a center – he had been playing on the wing. But he began to learn the position in the QMJHL with Cape Breton and was obviously a quick study. After one more year split between the Eagles and Blainville-Boisbriand, Dubois got to Columbus and has steadily been one of the team’s most effective high-end players. No, you don’t see him at many All-Star Games and he doesn’t get the national TV commercials, but that’s because sound, two-way play isn’t really sexy unless you also put up big numbers a la Ryan O’Reilly.
But as long as the Blue Jackets remain a heavy outfit to deal with, I’m gonna wager that Dubois and his bosses will let that one slide.
Dubois wasn’t alone of course. Seth Jones, the team’s best defenseman, also took on Matthews regularly and effectively. Jones was particularly physical against the Maple Leafs, which is a sound strategy for a team that prefers to win games with skill rather than brawn.
It is not coincidental that one of Matthews’ best chances came in the second period when he found himself on the ice against Dean Kukan and Ryan Murray, rather than Jones and his excellent partner, Zach Werenski.
And of course there was goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, who earned the shutout in his first-ever NHL post-season appearance. Though the team was very good in front of him, Korpisalo shut the door when needed, including a very early chance from Nick Robertson on the doorstep and that Matthews shot in the second.
“He was a big part of the win,” said coach John Tortorella. “Not a lot of wasted motion. I liked his demeanor, also. We’re in a pretty good situation as far that position is concerned.”
Overall, Tortorella was pleased with his team’s positioning throughout the evening and Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe noted how difficult Columbus made the game for his squad. From top to bottom, it was a deadly-efficient outing for the Blue Jackets and that was always going to be the key to success for them: ground the high-flying Maple Leafs before Toronto’s big guns get an opportunity to torch you.
“There’s nothing special we’re doing,” Tortorella said. “We’re just trying to play the game the right way.”