Patience never has been Matt Dumba’s strong suit. Last winter, when he was sent back to his junior team after starting the season on the Wild roster, he was brokenhearted that his NHL dream would be delayed — even though he was only 18 years old.
The young defenseman soon realized the virtue of slowing down a little, which has put him in position to stick in St. Paul this time around. He remains a swift and nimble skater who can ignite an offense with his passing ability and his booming shot. A third year of seasoning with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League helped teach him when to temper his natural aggressiveness, adding a layer of maturity to his promising game.
In hindsight, Dumba said, he understands his return to Red Deer was a necessary step in his development. As he continues to learn the value of patience, the Wild’s 2012 first-round draft pick also wants to charge full speed ahead into the NHL, which is just the approach the Wild wants to see.
“I’m in a stage of my career where I want to move on,’’ said Dumba, who registered four shots and three hits in 22 minutes, 37 seconds of ice time in Tuesday’s preseason loss to Columbus. “Making it here is definitely where my heart is at.
“It was disappointing last year, to be that close and to see it right in front of you. At the same time, patience is key. I figured that out. And I’m a better player because of it.’’
As much as Wild coach Mike Yeo appreciates that, he does not want to dampen Dumba’s full-throttle personality. A fast, powerful skater who is eager to jump into the offense, Dumba can move the puck, pass and shoot with equal skill. At 6 feet and 181 pounds, Dumba — who turned 19 less than two months ago — also has become known for fearsome open-ice hits.
Last season, Dumba logged 16 goals and 26 assists in 62 games with Red Deer. At a tournament for prospects in Traverse City, Mich., earlier this month, he demonstrated a more conservative game. Yeo’s message to him during camp has been to seek the proper balance between his aggressive instincts and maintaining sound defense, without worrying about making mistakes.
“In Traverse City, he played very safe and very responsible, which is something that has been preached on,’’ Yeo said. “A young kid, sometimes you have to take a little of the high-risk game out of them. But what we talked to him about at camp was, you’re not going to make our team by just playing safe and responsible.
“We need him to get up to the line but not cross it as far as bringing some of the things he has that we could use on this team. What we’re looking for is how close can he get to that line, how much can he contribute on the offensive side of things, but at the same time make sure [he’s] not a liability out there.’’
Last winter, the Wild kept Dumba around for the first eight days of the abbreviated season; though he did not play, the team wanted to give him a preview of both the thrill and the grind of the NHL. If he is to move up this season, it must be with the Wild.
An agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League prohibits players younger than 20 from playing in the minors, meaning Dumba cannot be assigned to the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa. Even if the Wild chooses to return him to Red Deer, he can play up to nine games with the Wild this season without losing a year of his contract.
A self-described student of the game, Dumba said he learned much last season from former NHL coach Brent Sutter, who took the helm at Red Deer last November. Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said Dumba has improved his ability to read the play and position himself properly on defense. Despite his youth, he noted, Dumba has shown the confidence to assert himself and the intelligence to learn from his experiences.
“So far, he’s tested very well,’’ Flahr said. “We’ll see how he handles [preseason games] and if he’s ready to go.’’
In one sense, Dumba feels he is beyond ready. But as someone who now understands the importance of being patient, he has faith that his career will blossom in due time.
“I’m starting to feel more relaxed on the ice, just believing in my instincts,’’ he said. “I have the skill level; I’ve just got to keep working hard, battling and learning something new every day. Basically, I’ve just got to be me and play my game.’’