From a feeble output of goals to costly gaffes amid a reshuffled blue line, the absence of Matt Dumba has reverberated all over the ice in just the two games he’s missed for the Wild.
Persevering without the player who leads the NHL in goals among defensemen isn’t a short-term adjustment for the Wild.
It’s the team’s reality for the foreseeable future.
Dumba is expected to undergo surgery next week to repair an upper-body injury and will be sidelined for a significant amount of time, a setback that stings the Wild but also stalls what had the potential to be the best season of the 24-year-old’s career.
“It really hurts,” General Manager Paul Fenton said. “There’s no question that it really hurts. I was really glad with the way our defense was playing. We had balance.”
The Wild has been without Dumba ever since a 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday.
After fighting Matthew Tkachuk 40 seconds into the game, a confrontation that served as retaliation for Dumba’s hard but legal check on Flames center Mikael Backlund in the Dec. 6 meeting between these two teams in Calgary, Dumba continued to play and ended up logging 5 minutes, 37 seconds in the first period. But he did not return for the second and third.
It’s unclear when Dumba suffered the injury, as Fenton said even Dumba isn’t sure. Fenton acknowledged labeling the issue as an upper-body injury is generic, but he said he wants to protect Dumba.
“When they give a specific injury, it scares me when they’re playing against an opponent that might have a mean tendency to them,” Fenton said. “That’s just the nature of our game. I’d rather err on the precautionary.”
While the team hoped he’d be able to rebound quickly, Dumba received a second opinion and surgery was deemed necessary.
“He’s a big loss on the defense,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “There’s no doubt he was coming into his own as a young player maturing into becoming one of the better offensive defensemen in the league. So it’s a blow, but we have to get over it and not feel sorry for ourselves.”
Fenton has consulted with three doctors and although each has offered up a possible timeline, he said a precise length of recovery won’t be known until the surgery is completed. Dumba, who Fenton called “visibly upset” by the news, is still expected to be around the team.
“Certainly, he’s in a state of shock,” Fenton explained. “We told him take the time you need. I think he’s going to see his family and kind of try and take the shock out of it for him.”
Before getting hurt, Dumba had been one of the most dynamic presences in the Wild’s lineup.
His 12 goals still pace the NHL for defensemen, output that is just two shy of the career-high 14 he racked up last season. He also leads NHL defenders in power-play goals (six) and ranks among the most proficient on the Wild in power-play points (12), hits (60) and shots (93).
“His shot was becoming way more accurate,” Boudreau said. “He was taking a leadership role. He was the vocal leader in the room. He was the guy that was excited and got everybody going, and all this is maturity. The consistency of his game on a night-to-night basis was much better than in previous years.”
Overall, Dumba accumulated 22 points in 32 games and averaged the second-most ice time on the team at 23:23 — a heavy workload that he managed mostly alongside Ryan Suter as the top duo. He also tied the franchise record for the longest point streak by a defenseman at seven games and became the first blue liner in the NHL this season to reach 10 goals — a first in Wild history — and just the sixth defender since 1989-90 to reach the plateau through his team’s first 22 games.
These contributions were shaping up to be an impressive response to the five-year, $30 million contract Dumba, the 2012 seventh overall pick, secured last summer.
“He certainly showed what type of role that we will be using him in the future,” Fenton said. Since losing Dumba, the Wild has relied on the six defensemen left on the roster — a setup the team can continue to utilize Saturday when it hosts the Dallas Stars for its final game before the leaguewide holiday break — but adding reinforcements is on Fenton’s radar. Ryan Murphy and Louie Belpedio, both of whom had stints with the Wild last season, are right shots Fenton mentioned could be ushered into duty from the minors. But he’d also like to watch how the current six stabilize.
“That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to explore other opportunities here,” Fenton said. “I’m certainly looking at it, looking around the league and see what might be available.”
In the interim, the new-look Wild defense has been tagged for six goals in two losses — a 2-1 letdown to the Penguins Thursday being the most recent. Pittsburgh scored the game-winning goal off a Greg Pateryn turnover behind the net.
“Pateryn isn’t used to playing with [Jonas] Brodin, and he makes a play that he’s made all throughout the season,” Fenton said. “Sometimes you gotta let it sink in a little bit and let them get more used to each other.”
What doesn’t require more time to crystallize is Dumba’s ability.
The impact he previewed so far this season is exactly the type of boost the Wild is counting on when he returns.
“I don’t think this will slow him down,” Boudreau said. “Knowing his personality, he’ll be defiant and come back better than ever.”