Matt Dumba, who has what assistant coach Darryl Sydor describes as a “swagger” and almost endearing cockiness to him, is trying to keep levelheaded with both feet firmly on the ground.
But the Wild knows — and more importantly Dumba knows — that the 20-year-old rookie defenseman is starting to get it.
Since being recalled Jan. 15 to play in Buffalo — the infamous contest that began the Wild’s 18-4-2 run heading into Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils — Dumba’s game has dramatically improved. In the past 11 games, Dumba, in averaging 19 minutes a contest, is plus-13 with four goals.
“I wake up from my pregame nap, I do a little visualizing, and during that, if there’s a mistake out there, I know I can get back to my game, I know what my game is right now,” said Dumba, the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft. “I feel confident within that, and hopefully I can keep building off that.
“My confidence is really good right now. Just making simple plays and trying not to force things, but when there is a chance to make a play, make it because I have the skills to do that, too.”
Besides Devan Dubnyk’s marvelous play starting in that same Jan. 15 game, the gradual progression to Dumba’s game the past several weeks arguably has been the Wild’s biggest surprise.
It wasn’t even a month ago when Dumba, known as a high-risk, high-reward player, still invoked enough near-heart attacks per game that assistant coach Rick Wilson, who changes the defensemen, jumbled his defense pairs to avoid Dumba being on for defensive-zone faceoffs.
It was a seven-week span in late November to mid-January that Dumba was playing for Iowa of American Hockey League in order to develop his game, and it was almost four months ago in New Jersey that Dumba was a healthy scratch because of a costly mistake the game before in Montreal. On a night the Wild was playing a patient, textbook road game, Dumba tried to make something out of nothing in a scoreless game.
After doing a good job stopping a bouncing puck at the blue line, Dumba tried to bank a puck past Max Pacioretty rather than safely dumping it in. When Dumba realized the pass was too soft, he jumped in front of Pacioretty and dived.
Tomas Plekanec got to the puck first, hit Brendan Gallagher with a stretch pass and next thing you know it was 1-0 Montreal. Wilson played Dumba one shift the rest of the game, Yeo called it a “learning lesson” and scratched him the next game in New Jersey. The Wild planned to send Dumba to the minors the next day, but it was delayed two weeks because Marco Scandella and Dumba’s best friend, Jonas Brodin, got the mumps.
Staying in control
Yeo and Sydor say the difference between Dumba heading into Tuesday’s Devils game compared with the Nov. 11 Devils game is “control.”
“The Dumba before was a little out of control and wanted to do too much,” said Sydor, who can relate to Dumba because he too was 19 when he broke into the NHL as a defenseman. “That’s what happens when you’re young. You think you can come from that league [the Western Hockey League] and you could still do what you got away with there in this league.
“But you can’t. You have to take baby steps to be able to do it, and then you see success. He’s an impact player now for us.”
Dumba keeps the game in front of him now, gets the Wild’s transition game churning, knows when to jump into a play and never hesitates using his blistering slapshot. Sydor says Dumba “lets the puck do the work for him instead of trying to do it all himself. Offense is going to get you into the league, but defense is going to keep you around. Now he’s more reliable.”
Dumba said that stint in Iowa did wonders for his game and confidence. He scored 14 points in 20 games, was plus-2 and “was playing 25, 30 minutes a night down there and put in every situation. That does a lot for you. It was awesome.”
That time in Iowa also enabled him to miss the majority of the Wild’s losing this season. The Wild is 30-11-1 with him in the lineup. Coincidence or not, the Wild has won six of 24 games without him.
Seizing his opportunity
With injury to others has come more opportunity for Dumba, and he has blown the coaches away starting with that first game in Calgary on Feb. 18 when he assumed Jared Spurgeon’s ice time after Spurgeon sustained a concussion. Now, Yeo trusts putting Dumba on in any situation at any point in the game. He’s playing the penalty kill, steps on the ice in the waning minutes of games, gets tough matchups.
Dumba no longer is being sheltered, impressive for a youngster in his first full season.
“At the start of the year, the difference was that he was playing to try to keep himself on the roster,” Yeo said. “And with that, and we talked to him about this, in his eyes he felt if he went out and made one great play a night that it was going to be the difference. That wasn’t the case whatsoever.
“Whereas, I think right now he feels pretty comfortable and confident that he’s with us, and because of that, he’s allowing the game to unfold.”
Remember, this is a kid who six weeks ago was in the AHL All-Star Game.
“You have to earn their trust,” Dumba said of the coaches. “I still feel the need to do that and keep proving myself. But I feel more comfortable now and feel like I’m a part of it. Hopefully I can keep building on that so they keep putting me in every situation.”