Devan Dubnyk couldn’t have asked for a better summer break. The Wild goaltender took a golf trip to Ireland, attended the NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas to accept the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, signed a lucrative new six-year contract and relaxed with family at his lake house in Kelowna, British Columbia.
As much fun as that was, Dubnyk wasn’t sorry to see it end. After saving the Wild’s season last winter — and raising his game to new heights — he was itching to return to a place that already feels like home. Thursday, he will make his preseason debut, starting at Columbus in the team’s third game since training camp began last week.
Dubnyk went 27-9 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage after the Wild acquired him in January. That brought him a $26 million contract and the greatest job security he has had in a six-year NHL career. While coach Mike Yeo is happy to have shed the goalie drama that clouded the past two seasons, Dubnyk is equally delighted to start his first full season with the team he considers a perfect fit.
“It feels so good coming in here,’’ Dubnyk said after Wednesday’s practice at Xcel Energy Center. “It feels right. Just to be back with these guys, and to know I’m going to have a chance to grow and win a lot of hockey games with this group going forward, is very exciting for me and my family. We love this city.’’
Yeo split his roster into two groups Wednesday, with one primarily composed of youngsters and another weighted heavily with returning players. Dubnyk will backstop some of both in Thursday’s game. Yeo said he will use a young lineup Saturday against Edmonton in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but the rosters for the final two preseason games will be as close as possible to the group that will start the season Oct. 8 at Colorado.
While the coach has some decisions to make, his starting goaltender is not one of them. During the past two seasons, he regularly fielded questions about injuries and uncertainty in the goalie corps; Wednesday, Yeo noted that he has spent little time thinking about the position since training camp began.
Dubnyk said he typically has played in a preseason game by this point, but he likes the strategy of delaying his allotment until the final few games to build seamlessly toward the opener. Thursday, Yeo expects Dubnyk to polish skills such as timing, reading plays, challenging opponents and puck play. “Just game readiness,’’ he said. “[Thursday] will be a good test to see where he’s at, and then every game from here on out, you hope he takes another step.’’
On a larger scale, that is what Dubnyk wants to do throughout this season. His aim is not to replicate his numbers from last season, when he finished second in the league in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.929) and engineered a career revival that earned him the Masterton Trophy. Instead, he wants to continue seeking his best form among teammates who meshed with him instantly.
As much as he appreciates his newfound job security, Dubnyk said the lean times taught him to relish every game. That philosophy set the foundation for his ascent last season, and he said it must remain at the top of his mind as he moves forward.
He has much to be happy about these days. His son, Nathaniel, turned 2 in August; he and his wife, Jennifer, are expecting another child in December. His enchanted season gave his family financial security and a wealth of memories. And he sees room to grow, he said, with a team and town that feel right.
“I think it’s important to always look to keep getting better and growing with this group in here, and knowing I get a chance to do that is exciting for me,’’ Dubnyk said. “I’m just going to concentrate on those things that were helping me play well last year and continue to improve on them. I want to continue to get better until I’m done playing hockey.’’