After going one-quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets have finally found their top line.
On paper, they are a band of misfits. On the left, there is charismatic Russian sniper Artemi Panarin, who at 26 years old has already built up quite the resume. In the middle, 19-year-old rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was a penciled-in question mark on the roster coming into training camp. Then, on the right, matching Dubois’s size and stature is last season’s breakout star Josh Anderson, who put up 17 goals and 29 points while playing third-line minutes for the majority of the 2016-17 campaign.
Somehow, the trio gels really well together — even they cannot explain their chemistry themselves.
“I really don’t know,” Dubois said with a laugh when asked about his line’s cohesion after Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes. “I guess we’re just getting used to each other. When I get the puck at a certain place, I know and have a feeling of where [Anderson and Panarin are] going to be. We don’t think; we just play with our instincts. I think that’s why we’re dangerous.”
Here’s one instance of that chemistry on display, and it did not fare well for the Hurricanes.
However, it is more than just the chemistry happening here. Each player on that line brings his own set of skills that result in high puck possession, swift defensive checking and grade-A scoring chances.
Let’s break it down into what each player brings to the table.
Left Wing Artemi Panarin
Panarin posted 151 points (including 41 power-play points) in 162 games as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. He also won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2016 and was a second-team NHL All-Star last year. So, the expectations were understandably high when he arrived in Columbus at the start of the season in this summer’s blockbuster trade that sent Brandon Saad back to Chicago.
So far, Panarin has had a sluggish start to the season, even though he leads the Blue Jackets with 16 points. Again, the expectations are high considering his career history, and 11 of those 16 points are assists. Panarin was brought to Columbus to be a scoring machine, not secondary support.
Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said he has had multiple conversations with Panarin about what he can do to improve, but he is working through the adjustments.
“Panarin is a different type of player [than Dubois and Anderson],” Tortorella said after Tuesday’s win. “He has had a little bit of a lull playing away from the puck lately. I was so impressed with how hard he was on the puck and how hard he played away from the puck [at the start of the season]. I don’t want him to lose that when the puck isn’t going in the net. I’m not sure if it’s there or not, but I want to let him play out.”
Tortorella added that the play on the puck is an unheralded part of Panarin’s game that fans and viewers do not take the time to appreciate when he does not crack the scoresheet.
“He does things that people don’t see sometimes,” Tortorella said. “He makes good little plays that make that line better.”
Dubois said he enjoys playing alongside Panarin, who was a player he watched in awe at training camp and never thought he would share a line with.
“[Panarin] is one of the most skilled guys in the NHL,” Dubois said. “He finds open space and if you give him the puck, he’ll make the right play.”
So far, those two have made some of the right plays happen that are paying off in Blue Jackets wins.
Center Pierre-Luc Dubois
The third overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft knew he would go through growing pains as he adjusted from junior hockey to the big leagues. He and everyone else expected it.
What no one expected was for Dubois to adjust so quickly and translate into so much success as of late, especially when he averaged just 8:31 per game in a stretch at the end of October. Dubois has not dipped below the 11-minute mark in total ice time since Nov. 4 and has three goals to show for his efforts.
Dubois said his curiosity is what has helped him the most.
“I knew it was going to be a big jump from junior [hockey] and that it would take a couple of games or weeks,” Dubois said. “Tortorella told me he wanted to start me slow to learn the game, so I started off on the wing and now I’m back to center. Every game, I try to learn. Every practice, I try to learn. I try to ask questions, too. I’ve gotten to know the league a little bit more, learned about back-to-backs and that they are harder. You have to be smarter in the second game. I knew it was going to take a couple of games, but right now I feel really good about where I am. I’m feeling better and better every game.”
Tortorella said that he is happy with Dubois’ performance so far, too, even though he did not trust Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s analysis at first.
“I go to Jarmo, who tells me ‘[Dubois] does this, he does that’ and early on I told him ‘Jarmo, I don’t see it. I haven’t seen him like you have,’ and he says ‘watch.’ It’s one of the things Jarmo talked about; bringing pucks to the net. He’s been good. You can see he’s getting more and more confident.”
Tortorella is quick to call out that Dubois is still young, and likely still has growth periods ahead.
“He’s 19 — he’s still going to get stronger,” Tortorella said. “He’s still going to learn how to protect pucks better and I think he’s improving in that area. It makes it really interesting, having him in the middle of the ice, doing the things he’s doing right now.”
Considering how well Dubois has played lately, and hearing Tortorella talk about how much untapped potential Dubois still has, look out world.
Right Wing Josh Anderson
After his unexpected 17 goal and 29 point performance last season, a higher spot in the lineup was Anderson’s for the taking coming into the 2017-18 campaign. Tortorella told him he had to earn his playing time and power play opportunities, and he has passed with flying colors.
“He’s our leading goal scorer,” Tortorella said of Anderson, who has nine goals and 14 points in 23 games. “I have said right along here, he’s our most consistent forward offensively. You can see Andy is feeling it, too. He thinks he should be doing these things.”
Tortorella added that Anderson still has more in the tank that he has not tapped into yet, and will get there as long as he continues to do what he’s been doing.
“He needs to take it to another level,” Tortorella said. “[Anderson] just can’t let it get good to him. [I said] when things are going well for you, make sure you stay on top of yourself. Continue to do the things that got you to that level, and then get to another level. There is another level with Andy. That’s what’s exciting to me.”
However, the level-jumping was almost put on hold when Anderson went hard into the end boards Tuesday night. Luckily, the hit looked worse than it was and he returned minutes later to finish the game as one of the Blue Jackets’ top players that night.
Anderson now with points in a career-best 4-straight games (2-2-4), surpassing his 3-game point streak earlier this season (Oct. 21-27; 2-1-3). #CBJ
— CBJ Public Relations (@BlueJacketsPR) November 29, 2017
Tortorella said he was proud of the way Anderson came back and carried energy every time he was back on the ice.
“High marks to Andy,” Tortorella said. “He didn’t hesitate—he got up pretty quickly and played right on through the game and I thought he played really well. I want [some of his teammates] who are not so sure they would come back to watch that, like some of the guys I have talked about quite regularly [in regards to] mental toughness.
“It’s part of playing in the NHL and it’s part of gluing your team, too,” Tortorella added. “That’s really important stuff for the camaraderie and glue of a team, and Andy has impressed me [with that] right from Day 1. He has stood right in there and has done some good things for this team.”
Though he is bruised and battered, the Blue Jackets are glad Anderson can continue what he has started with Dubois and Panarin.
Jackets Top Line – Bringing It All Together
Though unexpected, the Panarin-Dubois-Anderson trio has proven that they can compete with several of the top lines around the NHL, and Tortorella said they will stay intact as long as they continue to produce positive results.
“That’s been our top line here for the last little while,” Tortorella said. “On offensive zone face-offs, I put that line out there 80 percent of the time. They deserve it, too. The line has been good. I’m going to let them play.”
Dubois agreed, and said his line excels most in the offensive zone, even though they have a strong back check and transition game.
“We’re a really good puck-possession line,” Dubois said. “When you have the puck, it’s the best defense, really. If you’re not in your zone, then there aren’t any chances against. We know when we don’t have the puck that we have to protect the middle and we have to be smart. We try to keep the puck as much as we can so we don’t have to defend as much.”
Anderson agreed with Dubois’ analysis, and said that their line resembles another popular Blue Jackets forward line.
“We’re a fast line and we’re hard to play against when we get going in the offensive zone,” Anderson said. “It kind of reminds me of [Brandon] Dubinsky and Boone [Jenner]’s line where they have two grinders and then Cam [Atkinson], the skilled guy. We bring a lot of that same thing.”
So far, the Panarin-Dubois-Anderson line has shown what they are capable of, which is more skill than any other Blue Jackets trio. Although Tortorella loves the line blender, the Blue Jackets need consistency right now, and they have it in their motley crew of top-line talent.