When Pierre-Luc Dubois is playing his best within the Kings’ well-defined structure, he’s tough to stop.
“He’s driving a group of players. He’s not reacting to a group of players. And whether that’s what we’re doing or the other team is doing, he’s just in charge of the situation,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound center who has been blessed with quick hands and surprisingly good speed.
But when Dubois isn’t involved or isn’t in sync with his linemates, the picture is far less than perfect. “If he’s passive and trying to read and react and figure things out, he’s not as effective,” McLellan said.
The uninvolved, hesitant version of Dubois is what the Kings have seen too often this season. That can’t continue if they’re serious about improving their 1-3-3 home record, with Florida coming to Crypto.com Arena on Thursday followed by St. Louis on Saturday.
After keeping the lineup stable most of the first month, McLellan moved a couple of pieces on his chess board last Saturday in an attempt to light a spark for Dubois and for Kevin Fiala, whose defensive mistakes often eclipse his offensive contributions. Without benefit of a practice, McLellan took Fiala (two goals, 14 points and a team-worst minus five defensive rating) off Dubois’ line and put Fiala alongside Phillip Danault and Trevor Moore against Philadelphia. Arthur Kaliyev joined Dubois and rookie Alex Laferriere.
“We just pulled it out of our hat,” McLellan said.
Which is what it looked like. The Flyers played soundly, but the new lines centered by Dubois and Danault were each on the ice for two goals against. The Kings’ eight-game team point streak ended with a thud.
What the line combinations will look like Thursday is anyone’s guess. McLellan said winger Jarrett Anderson-Dolan had played well for minor-league Ontario and was “getting pretty damn close to earning an opportunity. Plus, our game slid a little bit so there’s reason to maybe make a change.”
The biggest change has to come from within, from Dubois.
The Kings acquired him from Winnipeg in a sign-and-trade deal last summer to provide playoff-suitable depth up the middle, behind Anze Kopitar and Danault and ahead of hard-working Blake Lizotte. But Dubois can’t kill penalties, and with a 46.2% success rate on faceoffs, he lags behind Kopitar (55.8), Danault (51.2) and Lizotte (49.6). Dubois scored three goals in their first four games but scored only one in the following 10 games, and that on a power play. He has eight points overall.
“When you’re new to the team you’re trying to establish chemistry as fast as you can, but nobody’s waiting for you,” Dubois said. “Changing lines, I don’t really know what it’s going to be tomorrow or next game. It’s just part of the business.”
Adjusting to a new team and new system isn’t a first for Dubois, who got his wish to be traded away from Columbus — which had drafted him third overall in 2016 — and then worked with the Jets to engineer the trade to the Kings. This adjustment is taking longer than he or the Kings had hoped.
“There’s been ups and downs,” he said. “Like I said, when you’re new to the team, you’re trying to establish chemistry. Whether it’s with the system or with the [defensemen], especially as a center trying to play with everybody out there on the ice. I knew there was going to be a little adjustment period. It’s just what happens when you join a new team.”
When he’s at his peak, he uses his power-forward mentality to create chances for his linemates.
“I think when I’m playing well, I drive the play, I attract guys to me and then it opens up space for my wingers,” Dubois said. “I think if I do that well, it doesn’t really matter who’s on my wings. I can help them out in that sense.
“I never really concentrate on goals or assists. I think if you play well, everything else follows. So whoever it is on the wings, if I do my job, I think it helps them do their jobs a lot better. I think that’s also my job as a center.”
His size means he can’t hide on the ice. And his eight-year, $68-million contract carries expectations from fans and from the organization. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“My job is the exact same. You guys see the contracts and all that, but at the end of the day, it’s the same job. It’s the same league. It’s the same sport,” he said. “My life hasn’t changed too much. I’m the same player, same person, I was before. Yeah, I don’t feel nervous or feel or see any difference, really.”
Maybe that’s part of the problem. He should feel more urgency after getting the trade he wanted — again — and landing with a team that has big postseason aspirations.
McLellan has learned to mix pat-on-the-back encouragement with the occasional kick in the rear to motivate Dubois. “The initial kind of figure-it-out stuff, we’re past that now and now it’s a little more direct,” McLellan said. “He has high expectations of himself and we have, as an organization, high expectations for him, and we’re going to push him to meet that on both sides.”
For the Kings to succeed, Dubois has to be driving in every sense. He can’t be a passenger.