EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Bumped up in the lineup. Dropped down in the lineup. Centering his own line. Playing wing with two of the team’s top offensive players. Given prime minutes. Having them taken away. Praised for his play. Criticized for his play.
A lot of things have been tried to get Pierre-Luc Dubois going in his first season with the Los Angeles Kings. Precious few of them have worked – at least with any sense of consistency or sustainability.
As the Kings head out on what could be an all-important, potentially franchise-impacting road trip, they’re trying to stop an extended slide that’s seen them lose 12 out of 14 games — a 2-7-5 skid — and fall into clinging to a wild-card spot instead of making a push to win the Pacific Division.
At the center of the angst is Dubois, the 25-year-old forward the Kings acquired from Winnipeg last June for three forwards from last year’s playoff club and a second-round pick in 2024. The Kings also agreed to take on Dubois’ $68 million contract over eight years and a full no-move clause that kicks in this summer.
When a team makes that kind of a commitment, it expects an impact player. General manager Rob Blake expected that. Head coach Todd McLellan counted on that. And Dubois hasn’t been that, with 10 goals and 10 assists in their 45 games.
On Thursday, Dubois refrained from putting a grade on his first few months with the team — “I don’t really use grades or anything like that,” he said — but acknowledged his inability to put a noticeable positive imprint on the team.
“I think I have to be a difference-maker,” Dubois said. “There’s no doubt about that. That’s why I’m here. I think I have to adapt. And what is a difference-maker? You can be a difference maker in a lot of ways. You can be a difference-maker in the locker room. On the ice. You can be a difference-maker for young guys, helping everybody out. It’s my job to find what I need to do and can do to be a difference-maker within the role that I’m given, with the circumstances of everything.
“That’s my job. It’s on me to figure out how can I help this team every night to win hockey games. Some nights, it can be scoring. Some nights, it can be physical. Some nights, it can be faceoffs. Some nights, it can be power play. That’s what I’m here to do and that’s the kind of player that I want to be on a consistent basis. That’s my job to figure it out.”
Dubois did score on Wednesday to cap a resurgent three-goal first period for the Kings against the Buffalo Sabres. It did not keep them from playing sloppily in the second and third, resulting in a 5-3 come-from-ahead loss that had Drew Doughty questioning the motivations of his teammates. Anze Kopitar lamented how they’ve gotten away from what made them successful up until the end of December and McLellan using the words “dumb” and “stupid” when describing his team’s play amid growing questions over his job status.
In that defeat, Dubois played a season-low 11 minutes, 17 seconds, and he was back at center on the third line between rookie Alex Laferriere and part-timer Jaret Anderson-Dolan. He said his power-play strike for a 3-1 lead “felt good in the moment” but then he added, “Doesn’t really matter if two hours later, you’re down 5-3.”
“Everybody in this room believes winning a hockey game is the best feeling,” Dubois continued. “Scoring a goal is great. It’s fun. You get to celebrate with the five guys on the ice. Doesn’t mean much if you don’t come home with the two points.”
Blame gets assigned when a team with heightened expectations is failing to live up to them. The sudden plunge for the Kings has exacerbated that. Dubois isn’t the only reason why winning has become a chore over the last month. But he’s part of the theoretical starring cast that bears responsibility for their failings.
His 36-point pace would easily be a career-low over a full 82-game season. (The 21 points he had in 2020-21 came in the shortened 56-game season, during which he was traded from Columbus to Winnipeg.) It doesn’t look any better when Gabriel Vilardi and Alex Iafallo, two of the players swapped for Dubois, have been integral pieces for the Jets, who with a 30-11-5 record have become one of the top teams in the West.
Tie all that in with the Kings’ struggles and you have someone who’s bearing the brunt of criticism from talking heads.
“Pierre-Luc Dubois has been an abysmal failure to himself,” TSN analyst Craig Button said on a recent show with Vancouver-area broadcasters Don Taylor and Rick Dhaliwal. “His effort has been terrible. If that’s the account you want to make of yourself after signing a long-term contract and the team (commit) to you, he should be embarrassed by his play.”
Button added that he’s been a supporter of Dubois. “But not this,” he said. “Not the way he’s playing now.”
Meanwhile, ESPN analyst Ray Ferraro said last week on his podcast with Darren Dreger that, after watching Dubois at the end of the Kings’ six-game road trip, “he’s looking for the easy game.”
“Man, he’s big and strong,” Ferraro continued. “He’d be murder to play against. But the last game, I know it’s the sixth game of the road trip – I watched the game before, too – he never has his nose over the puck. When he’s engaged, it’s a completely different player. The other day, he just kind of skated around.
“He’s got to dig in. If they want out of that hole that they’re in right now – that’s a good team but they’re in a hole. They need him to play. Not just by a little bit but by a lot more than he’s playing.”
While praising him on occasion after games in which he has been noticeable, McLellan turned critical of Dubois on Monday after the Kings’ shootout loss to San Jose. The coach acknowledged that bouncing him between different lines and positions may be confusing him.
“But at the end of the day, if PL gets four minutes or PL gets 24 minutes, he has to be a difference-maker and with or without the puck,” he said. “We’ve gone through this long enough. It’s time.”
In Columbus, Dubois shared the No. 1 center role with Boone Jenner but was seen as the rising star to be their anchor in the middle until he asked for a trade. In Winnipeg, he played the 2C role behind Mark Scheifele but outplayed him on occasion until things went south. Now in his first season with Los Angeles, Dubois has largely been the 3C behind Kopitar and Phillip Danault.
When asked Thursday how he’s handled the way McLellan has managed him, Dubois paused and then reiterated how he’s got to work on making a greater impact for the club.
“The role that I had in Columbus, what was asked of me there, you get used to that and you apply that on the ice,” he said. “And then in Winnipeg, same thing. You get a role. You figure it out. How can you become a difference-maker every night in that role with that opportunity you’re given, and you figure it out.
“It’s the same thing here. I’m given a new role. One that I have to learn how to take and learn how to make it my own. And you know, that’s just my job to figure it out and become a better player.”
Coming out of Wednesday’s loss, Doughty notably called out his teammates and said, “I think we’ve got guys in this room that are too worried about themselves and worried about their points and worried about stuff like that.” He didn’t refer to any by name. However, Dubois’ history of asking out from his two prior teams caused many to draw a line – correctly or incorrectly – between Doughty’s comments and Dubois.
Dubois said he feels Doughty spoke from the heart and that his championship pedigree, along with his share of lows with the Kings, gives him the right to speak his mind.
“There’s what goes on behind closed doors here and then there’s what goes on in the media,” he said. “Dewey’s won everything. When a guy like that speaks, everybody in here listens. Including guys that have won. Including new guys, young guys. Guys that haven’t won. He goes out there every night with that passion. Plays with that passion. Speaks with that passion. There’s no three Deweys, two Deweys. There’s only one Dewey.
“You guys know him really well. It’s a great thing. He’s passionate. I’m sure he’s going to come out next game and play with that same passion and try to ignite the guys. It starts in here.”
Will Doughty’s attempt to light a fire start with Dubois? Dubois thought about his first season with the Jets and how he initially had trouble adapting to a changed role after being a 1C with the Blue Jackets. He called it frustrating but said it also made him a stronger person in the end. He remains confident that things will improve with the Kings.
“I’m the same player I’ve always been,” he said. “It’s simple. It’s my job to figure it out.”
(Photo of Pierre-Luc Dubois: Jaylynn Nash / Getty Images)