Pierre-Luc Dubois Used the Only True Leverage the System Afforded Him

Becoming a problem offered more leverage than any the CBA formally offers to young star players.

When news came out before the start of the season that center Pierre-Luc Dubois wanted out of Columbus, the Blue Jackets presented themselves as disappointed but unrattled, insisting that they would handle it the same way they went about their business in 2018-19 when the entire world knew Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky intended to leave.

It didn’t worked out that way. The Blue Jackets have just one win through five games, a rough start that is worsened by the short season and with every game being intra-division.   Dubois himself has just one point in five games, and that’s hardly the worst of it. He has been visibly disengaged on the ice, with Head Coach John Tortorella reaching his boiling point after this lackluster shift on Thursday. Dubois did not see ice the remainder of the night.

Greater implications aside, Tortorella was right to bench Dubois. That is an objectively horrendous “effort” and it’s not even about accountability or setting an example. Tortorella needed to ice a lineup that would optimize his team’s chances of winning the game and he could not risk any more damaging shifts from a center.

This is also not to celebrate or even necessarily condone Dubois’ on-ice apathy. Regardless of what is going on between him and management, his poor performances have collateral damage. It hurts his teammates and it’s unfortunate for fans.

Dubois’ handling of the situation is cynical and undignified. It’s also really the only avenue available to him to influence his own fate.

Teams unilaterally draft players as 17- or 18-year-old’s and then more or less have total control over that player for the next eight years until they become unrestricted free agents. Dubois, 22 years old, is one of the most capable and desirable players in the world. Yet when he was out of contract this summer, he had little leverage in negotiations with the Blue Jackets, let alone in seeking out other opportunities.

Columbus would have had a chance to match any contract Dubois signed with another team and ink him under those exact terms. Had they refused to match and let him leave, the signing team would have owed draft pick compensation. Leaving Columbus would have required another team to offer him a contract they believed he and the draft pick loss were worth but also high enough that Columbus wouldn’t match it. That’s a tough needle to thread. Only two offer sheets have been signed in the last decade, with both being matched by the team holding his rights. Dustin Penner’s departure from Anaheim to Edmonton in 2007 is the only time in the salary cap era that a player changed teams via offer sheet. The difficult logistics mean teams rarely bother.

Dubois also had no arbitration rights, which effectively meant he was beholden to whatever Columbus was willing to offer him. His only leverage was to refuse to sign a deal, make himself unavailable for the start of the season, and demand a trade. That certainly wouldn’t have been ideal for Columbus, but he’d be out of sight and they’d still have total control over if, when, and where Dubois would be able to continue his NHL career. They’d still hold his rights through 2024 and they could wait as long as they wanted to move him. When would that be? Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekäläinen reportedly was more than happy to take his time with that matter.

So, Dubois has taken the path of least resistance, which is to sign a two-year contract, show up for the season, and force the issue through disarray. He’s been a liability on the ice to the point his head coach had to bench him. Tortorella and other players are forced to answer nearly daily questions about the situation at this point. There is local and national media attention hyperfocused on the organization for all of the wrong reasons. It’s become a distraction, and one that The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline has now deemed “untenable.” The longer this endures, the bigger problem it will become.

The situation is ugly but that’s not Dubois’ fault. If you’re a Columbus fan or teammate who is upset at how this is unfolding, blame a system that afforded Dubois little room to make his own decisions in employment.

That a player like Dubois has so little leverage for the most valuable part of his hockey career is an intentional design by hockey’s owners to keep salaries down and reduce competition. To some degree, blame the players’ union as well, who willingly signed the CBA. A two-year- $10M contract wouldn’t come even close to cutting it for Dubois in a true real free market. The mechanisms in place to artificially and severely limit the player’s leverage are what allow Columbus to sign him well below his true worth.

Nobody is asking you to feel bad for Dubois. If his biggest complaint is that he’s being paid a $10M salary through 2022 to eat, travel, and sleep with first-class accommodations and play a sport, then he’s more fortunate than 99-percent of the world’s population in normal circumstances, let alone a pandemic-induced recession.

One can still recognize that Dubois’ fight is still beneficial to a greater cause. Pitting working classes against each other is quite a useful tool for the uber-rich, and while millionaire hockey players aren’t exactly 1900s coal miners, a falling tide lowers all boats. The league’s top players are the anchoring point by which all players underneath are compared. If a player like Dubois is successfully shamed into accepting whatever circumstances he’s been forced into, then what chance do far lesser players — all the way down to minor leaguer — have in sticking their necks out to negotiate their worth and exert some control over their careers? That only benefits leaguewide ownership.

Say what you will about Dubois’ actions, but they worked. The Blue Jackets, who days ago were ready to bide their time in search of the exact deal they wanted, have quickly reconsidered and appear on the verge of granting Dubois his trade request. NHL owners fought tooth and nail for a system that gives players like Dubois little agency and dares them to break from a hockey culture that stigmatizes becoming a problem and putting one’s needs ahead of the team’s. Dubois called their bluff. If they don’t like it, NHL franchises are free to loosen the grip on their control of young players and provide them with more conventional means to dictate the terms of their employment.