Devan Dubnyk has become the toast of the NHL.
That was evident this past week when the easygoing Wild goaltender was a media darling during the “Devan Dubnyk Tour” through western Canada.
Dubnyk played junior hockey in British Columbia, is from Calgary and grew up in the Edmonton organization, so he was front-page material in all three spots on a Wild road trip.
Dubnyk quickly has revived his career and boosted the Wild’s playoff dreams. Hours before delivering his fifth shutout and 12th victory in 16 starts Friday night, he said, “At least I’m getting talked about for the right reasons. Better than last year.”
Even Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who desperately threw a third-round pick to Arizona on Jan. 14 to acquire Dubnyk, couldn’t have envisioned this turnaround.
What was rock bottom?
“Every day in Hamilton, pretty much,” Dubnyk said. “Every day I woke up in the Staybridge Suites in Hamilton [Ontario] and looked out at the bikers at Tim Hortons.”
Last Jan. 15 — exactly one year before he shut out the Sabres in his first start with the Wild — Dubnyk was traded by the Oilers to Nashville. Less than two months later, after only two games of action, Dubnyk was traded to Montreal for future considerations (i.e. nothing) and assigned to the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hamilton.
“It felt like it was never going to end,” Dubnyk said. “There were days you think to yourself, ‘How did I get here?’ You think you don’t deserve it, but then, at the same time, I always told myself, ‘If you had played better, you wouldn’t be here. Period.’ ”
And … “If I can put myself in it, I can pull myself out of it.”
Last summer, the Coyotes signed him to a one-year deal. He worked with goalie coach Sean Burke, changed some techniques and transformed himself, going 9-5-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .916 save percentage as Mike Smith’s backup early this season.
The Wild’s three-goalie system wasn’t working. Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom were struggling, and Josh Harding has not been able to play beyond a brief minor league stint because of multiple sclerosis. Fletcher threw out a life line and the Wild is now centimeters from climbing into the Western Conference’s top eight for the first time since Nov. 24. The Wild is an NHL-best 12-2-2 since Dubnyk’s arrival; he is 12-2-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
“He’s such a great guy, and it seems like every night you’re watching the highlights, he’s getting a shutout or a win,” former Oilers teammate Jordan Eberle said before Dubnyk shut him out Friday. “You want to see that guy have success.”
A mother’s influence
Playing for five organizations in one year, Dubnyk unknowingly documented the first 17 months of his son Nathaniel’s life. On the back of his giraffe-designed mask (Dubnyk’s nickname since his junior days is “Giraffe” because he’s 6-6 and has a “long torso”) is the face of his son, Devan and wife Jennifer’s first child.
That sketch has updated as Nathaniel aged and dad voyaged from team to team.
Also on the mask is a breast cancer ribbon and the word “Mom.” When Dubnyk was a teenager, his mother, Barb, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived and 13 years later is as proud of her son as a mom can be.
“The way she handled that situation shaped me for the way I’ve lived the rest of my life,” said Dubnyk, 28. “To see how strong she was through all that was unbelievable. Even through chemotherapy, she wanted to cook for us and keep everything tidy. She’d get sick and would run upstairs to other side of the house because she was so worried about us hearing that she was sick.
“She had every reason to be selfish and worry about herself and to see someone do the opposite, it was pretty impactful.”
Dubnyk moved to Kamloops, British Columbia, to play junior hockey and eventually was drafted 14th overall by the Oilers in 2004. Two years later, he was the Canadian Hockey League’s Scholastic Player of the Year. The award goes to the player who is best able to combine success on the ice with success in school.
“I always took pride in school growing up,” Dubnyk said. “It was a nice thing to top off my school career.”
Empty in Edmonton
After being drafted, Dubnyk played two more full years of junior hockey, then four years in the minors. He finally became a fulltime NHLer in 2010 and had save percentages of .916, .914 and .920 his next three years for the defensively irresponsible Oilers.
But last season was a train wreck. He was 11-17-2 with a 3.36 goals-against average and .894 save percentage.
“I can’t put my finger on why it just snowballed. It wasn’t good for anybody,” Dubnyk said.
“I’m more disappointed the way the summer had gone coming into the season. I felt like they were trying to move on from me even though I felt I was steadily playing better.
“It was just disappointing to spend 10 years with an organization, buy a home there, have our first kid there and plan to be there a long time. But you know what? I forgot to stop the puck.
“I guess you can say I’m happy I ungracefully exited Edmonton to make my way here.”
The feeling is mutual. The Wild adores him. In 12 losses in 14 games before Dubnyk’s arrival, Kuemper and Backstrom gave up 58 goals (4.14 per game). Dubnyk has given up 25 goals in 16 games (1.6).
The Wild’s game fell apart as it lost confidence in its goaltending, but now it is again one of the NHL’s most defensively sound teams.
“With that confidence a goalie can bring, you know you’re going to have a great chance to win every game,” Wild winger Zach Parise said. “When it’s the opposite, it starts to leak into the mentality of the team. You give up and it’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ All of a sudden you start to cheat and you give up more. It’s a chain reaction.”
Parise recalled the game in Buffalo when Dubnyk made two big saves early “and a calm went over the bench. We relaxed. We scored right away and took over the game. He’s been doing that for us ever since.”
One reason the Wild has been able to relax is because Dubnyk is relaxed. Unlike many goalies, he talks to the media on gamedays. Not just talks. Talks and talks and talks — sometimes for 30 or 40 minutes after morning skates.
It hasn’t affected his play.
“Honestly, being in Edmonton, I never really thought of it,” Dubnyk said. “I didn’t talk too much when I first got there because I wasn’t playing very much. And then I chatted with the media and got to know them a little bit and you development a relationship with them. I try to be pretty laid back when it comes to game time. I try not to be too uptight.”
Dubnyk plays in the team’s pregame soccer hackysack games and jokes with teammates in the locker room right up to game time. Parise said that calmness filters right into the team.
During games, the goalie even shoots the breeze with officials.
“Usually I’m talking to the refs about nothing to do with the game,” Dubnyk said. “Once in awhile, I’ll ask them to keep an eye on the crease or something. Usually, I’m just chatting with the refs because it gives me a good chance to take a break from the game and have a conversation.”
Calm and collected
Dubnyk does the same thing during TV timeouts. He will skate to the bench, lean over the boards and hobnob with teammates.
“He just keeps things loose with such a good composure,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s able to brush off adversity. I was just looking at video, the clear high-stick goal in Calgary, a game-turner, they ruled it a good goal and he’s just shaking his head with a smile on his face.
“Before, we’d allow one goal to become two or three. We’d allow a blown lead to become a deficit. He doesn’t get mad or uptight when he allows a goal that it ends up affecting his play afterward. He’s able to brush those things off and get reset and refocused on the next save and with that gives the team a sense of calm.”
Besides being cool in net, Dubnyk’s ability to come out and play the puck and has helped the Wild’s 30-for-30 penalty kill the past 12 games, and helped the Wild get on transition quickly.
“It keeps me in the game, especially when I’m not getting a lot of shots, and it saves our defensemen from getting run through the boards,” Dubnyk said.
Dubnyk has started 16 consecutive games since the trade that brought him to the Wild. Yeo will continue to ride him.
“I just want to keep playing well enough that Mike wants to play me,” Dubnyk said.
“I’m happy with the personal recognition I’ve gotten here, but I knew this was too good of a hockey team to be doing what they were doing. This is a great hockey team. They work so hard and make things so easy.
“I’m very happy that I could be part of that turnaround. But we’re still not in the playoffs yet.”