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How Devan Dubnyk clawed out of the scrap heap and realized his immense potential

Ken Campbell
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How Dubnyk clawed out of the scrap heap and realized his immense potential

Devan Dubnyk. Image by: Getty Images

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How Devan Dubnyk clawed out of the scrap heap and realized his immense potential

Ken Campbell
By:

With wise mentors helping his game and a baby helping his brain, Devan Dubnyk has become a precious commodity for the Wild.

The person most responsible for Devan Dubnyk’s resurrection regularly looks around the Xcel Energy Center and has difficulty grasping it. After all, Nathaniel Dubnyk is just three years old. His skating needs work, though it’s getting a lot better, and his favorite part of the game is watching the Zamboni. During the nadir of his career, shortly after Nathaniel was born three years ago, Dubnyk went to his son. He knew that was where he needed to be. He held his boy in his arms, looked him in the eyes and somehow knew everything was going to be all right, whether he ever played another game in the NHL or not.

Dubnyk had been reduced to playing with a diminishing number of Black Aces at the Montreal Canadiens practice rink in Brossard while the Habs were making a run to the Eastern Conference final. One by one, more of them were graduating to practising with the big team, while Dubnyk was stuck facing pucks from players who had as much chance of getting into the lineup as Celine Dion. Even after Carey Price got hurt, Dubnyk was still third on the depth chart behind Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj.

“ ‘Pricer’ got hurt, and that wouldn’t have changed anything, and I knew that,” Dubnyk said while taking in the atmosphere during all-star weekend in Los Angeles. “I was in no situation, either where my game was or mentally, to be playing in the playoffs for the Montreal Canadiens.”

So, when Dubnyk asked permission to go back to Edmonton, the Canadiens were more than willing to comply. Nobody needed him, with the exception of a baby boy who hadn’t laid eyes on his father in 10 weeks. Fatherhood has a way of changing a man’s perspective. Just ask any NHL player who has gone from being the center of his own universe to being the center of someone else’s. All of a sudden, missing a gimme on an open net in overtime doesn’t sting quite as much. That was the perspective Dubnyk gained. But it also allowed him to reset, and it has turned out to be the best thing he did for his career.

Dubnyk comes home to two boys now. Parker, a rambunctious one-year-old, has joined the clan that outnumbers Jennifer, whom Dubnyk met in Kamloops when he was playing junior hockey. Just as Nate provided perspective for Dubnyk when he was at his lowest, he and Parker don’t really care when the Minnesota Wild are on a 12-game winning streak and their father is being brought up as a serious candidate for the Vezina Trophy. They’re just happy to see him, which gives him no choice but to let go of what’s going on at the rink, good or bad.

Nearly 13 years ago, Dubnyk was a first-round pick (14th overall) of the Edmonton Oilers, the second goaltender, after Al Montoya (6th), taken in the 2004 draft. A decade later, Dubnyk was almost out of the game. So, to say he now has sympathy for the fourth-liners, depth defensemen and guys who go year to year on one-year deals would be accurate. When people look at NHL players through their fan lenses, they see them living a charmed existence, being paid millions of dollars to do something fans think they would do for free. They see guys who skip the lines at the best nightclubs, who marry beautiful women and have enough money to set their grandchildren’s children for life. Rarely do they see what players have to endure, nor do they gain an appreciation for the person who has been cast aside, has no idea whether he’s going to have a job the next season and has lived across the continent from his family for more than two months.

“We’re all people, as real as you can be, but people forget that,” Dubnyk said. “Which is fine. That’s why people watch sports. They don’t want to know that we’re real people.”

"This feels right. There’s nothing magical about it…It just feels like business as it’s supposed to be done."

At some point, if Dubnyk and the Wild keep playing as well as they have, the narrative surrounding him will change. The rescued-from-the-scrap-heap story will become cliche, but for now it’s a great yarn. As Dubnyk takes a load off at the NHL headquarters hotel the day before the All-Star Game, everything is a blur. But he knows there was a time when he just wanted to play another NHL game. Dubnyk hasn’t yet tired of telling it. For a very short time, he was a goaltending partner in Phoenix with Mike Smith, who himself had checked out of his room at the scrap heap for good. Smith had a unique perspective on what Dubnyk had endured. Dubnyk’s final days with the Oilers were lamentable, but there were others there – namely Justin Schultz, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano – who have left Edmonton and gone on to salvage their careers.

“It was always about goaltending there, but I think there were a lot more issues than just him,” Smith said. “When things don’t go well, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can stick with it. He came to Arizona with a great attitude, and now he’s playing the best hockey of his life in Minnesota, and he’s one of the top goaltenders in the league. You hope to rub off on a guy in a good way, but he worked real hard, and I’m really proud of him. He deserves to be where he is today.”

Where he is today is tops among all goaltenders. Coming out of the all-star break, Dubnyk’s .936 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against average were best in the NHL among goalies who had played more than 10 games. Only Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers and Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs had faced and stopped more shots. What Dubnyk has done over the past couple seasons is the equivalent of a guy getting sent down to the minors five years into his career, then coming back up and becoming a 50-goal scorer. It kind of makes him a modern-day Johnny Bower, who played in the minors until he was almost 28, then played a full season for the dreadful New York Rangers, went back to the minors for four more years and returned to the NHL at 33. Although the route might have been more circuitous, it’s not exactly unprecedented for a goalie to find his oats a lot later than skaters. Bill Durnan didn’t break into the NHL until he was 27, and he went on to win six Vezina Trophies in seven seasons and make the NHL’s list of its top 100 players of all-time. Martin Brodeur didn’t win his first Vezina until he was 30, while Tim Thomas didn’t establish himself as an NHLer until he was 31 and didn’t win his first Vezina until he was 34.

None of this would have happened had Minnesota not gotten desperate in its search for a goaltender two years ago. The day the Wild acquired Dubnyk for a third-round pick, they were 18-19-5 and eight points out of a playoff spot. Josh Harding had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Niklas Backstrom was having a terrible season, Darcy Kuemper had just been hurt, and the Wild were watching their season circle the drain.

“To be as honest as possible, we were just trying to get a save,” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. “We were losing a lot of games, and our season was right on the brink of getting away from us. We got very lucky. Good fortune smiled warmly upon us.”

Dubnyk was actually having a pretty good bounce-back season with the Coyotes in 2014-15, though not this good. And lest you think the Wild’s 12-game winning streak was a fluke, all Dubnyk did after he was traded to Minnesota was pitch a shutout in his first game, then go 18-3-2 to vault the team into the playoff picture. That season, he had three winning streaks of at least five games. In fact, only Braden Holtby, with 113 wins, has more victories since the beginning of 2014-15 than Dubnyk’s 95.

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So, when it came time to sign Dubnyk to a long-term deal after the season, Fletcher and his people felt they had a good body of work to judge. He said when you really dig into the numbers, as he and his analytics department did, Dubnyk had three years where he had actually outperformed expectations. Using their own statistical analysis, the Wild looked at what his save percentage should have been with the Oilers, and Dubnyk posted a better number in three of the five seasons. One season was right at that level and then there was the last season where everything fell apart. Fletcher gave him term in exchange for a favorable cap number, and both sides knew Minnesota was the best place for him.

“We just didn’t have a guy who took it and ran with it,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. “We had a lot of good goalies, but it seemed we’d be playing and someone would get hurt, and then we’d have someone else come in. One year we had five different goalies and we still made the playoffs.”

Dubnyk brought to the Wild the thing that he was most seeking in his game, and it was an element they both desperately needed to avoid being relegated to the NHL’s hinterland. Ask any NHL skater and there is no more comforting thought than looking back to your net before the opening faceoff and seeing someone there you know you can trust. “The biggest thing now is stability,” Suter said. “He makes the save when you need them, and that’s the biggest compliment you can have as a goalie. The way we play suits him well, and the way he plays, it suits us.”

Much of Dubnyk’s on-ice transformation can be attributed to former NHL goalie Sean Burke, who worked with him in Arizona. Burke, who had a hand in helping Smith back to greatness, gave Dubnyk a reason to feel good about himself again. He also tweaked his game, urging him to anticipate the lateral pass, which brought him deeper into his net. That led to Dubnyk’s foray into the world of head trajectory, which basically – and we mean basically – has the goaltender follow the puck with his head, not his eyes. Still, Dubnyk didn’t make himself relevant again because he learned how to follow the puck better. That’s part of it, but you still have to possess the size, reflexes and sense of timing to actually stop it.

“The who?” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau asked when the subject of head trajectory came up. “No clue what you’re talking about, quite frankly. His positioning is great, his will to win is really great. I don’t know anything about a head trajectory or a foot trajectory of any other kind of trajectory we’re talking about. I just know he stops the puck, and that’s all a coach wants.” To which Dubnyk responded, “(Boudreau) doesn’t try to understand too much about goaltending. I’ll continue to try to keep him happy as best I can.”

If Dubnyk had come in two years ago, had his outrageous success and then fade back into the pack, it wouldn’t have been a surprise. The Wild, who signed him to a six-year deal worth $26 million, weren’t counting on that happening. And Dubnyk has done nothing to this point to disavow them of that notion. As January came to an end, Minnesota had earned at least a point in 23 of its past 26 games and had a firm grip on first place in the Central Division. Dubnyk has been the picture of consistency, posting winning streaks of at least three games four times, six if you include the 10 straight he won during the Wild’s 12-game run.

This isn’t a fluke anymore, neither for Dubnyk nor the Wild. After every Minnesota win, Eric Staal approaches his starting goalie and the two do a fist-bump, then Staal says something to the effect that Dubnyk almost looked like he knew what he was doing out there. A man looking to revive his career himself, Staal has fit in like a glove with the Wild, a group that is going a long way toward making Boudreau coach of the year and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher executive of the year.

“The funny thing is, you always wonder and dream when you’re younger about getting here and being in this situation, and it’s going to be amazing, and you’re going to be the best, and you’re going to walk with your chest out, but you never really know what it’s going to feel like,” Dubnyk said. “This feels right. There’s nothing magical about it. It doesn’t feel like we’re on some crazy run that’s going to fall apart. It just feels like business as it’s supposed to be done.”

The night before the all-star break, the St. Louis Blues were in town. Dubnyk had a fairly uneventful game, 24 saves on 25 shots and a third star to make him feel good about himself going into the respite. The other side of the ice, however, was a dog’s breakfast. Carter Hutton was pulled and replaced by Jake Allen, who himself was recently held back from a road trip to reset himself mentally during what has become a season from H-E-Double Hockey Sticks. Dubnyk watched it all from about 178 feet away. The Blues were melting, and their goaltending was the main source of the leak.

Allen is right around the same point in his career Dubnyk was when things began to spiral out of control. One difference, Dubnyk notes, is that regardless of what happens the rest of this season, Allen has a four-year contract extension that kicks in next season, whereas Dubnyk was on the final year of his deal.

“I know what it’s like,” Dubnyk said. “It’s not fun. I know everybody tells (Allen) this, but he’ll be better for it when he comes out of it, which doesn’t help right now. He’s a good goalie, and he’ll figure it out. Nobody’s wondering if the guy can stop the puck. You don’t forget how to do it.”

From anyone else, the words might ring a little hollow. But Dubnyk has glided in those skates. He knows of what he speaks.

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How Devan Dubnyk clawed out of the scrap heap and realized his immense potential