When a player in professional sports has a great season it’s almost like a curse. Everyone remembers the great play that made the season great, and expect more. So hungry are the fans and media for more the same level of excellence that they often fail to realize the great play that is happening right now. Not every year is a career year or a record breaking year, but just because it is not the player’s absolute best year does not make it a great season.
The Minnesota Wild’s Devan Dubnyk started the month of March with a bit of criticism saying he’s regressed. Lots of people in and around The State of Hockey had decided it was time to question if Dubnyk was still the same goaltender that led the Wild on the amazing run to salvage the season and win a first round showdown with the St. Louis Blues. It was a career year for him that saw him finish as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders with his Vezina Trophy nomination.
Even reporters from the hometown Star Tribune like Michael Rand began to wonder if the Dubnyk of last season was a fluke, and we are seeing a reduced Dubnyk. So many had decided the statistics pointed to a different Dubnyk, and Rand in his March 7th article in the Star Tribune even went as far to question if his contract was “another classic case of leverage leading to a deal an organization pretty much had to make in spite of any reservations decision-makers had.” Rand ended his article by saying “Dubnyk has regressed to what he was before last year’s trade: a goalie that most nights is durable but more aptly is described as average than spectacular.”
So how is that the “average” goaltender was just named the Second Star of the Month by the NHL, declaring him as the second best player in the league for the month of March? Maybe there’s a little bit more to Dubs than most think.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
March was a very strong month for Dubnyk on the stats sheet. He posted a record of 10-2-1, a 2.06 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, and one shutout of the Avalanche in a game that was critical to the Wild’s playoff chances. Additionally, he allowed two or fewer goals in nine of his 14 games played in March.
The Wild have needed him night in and night out, and Dubs has been solid. Those numbers show that night in and night out he’s given the Wild a chance to win the game. The leap into the playoff driver’s seat is mostly due to the consistent play of Dubnyk in March.
Adversity Leads to Resiliency
Many of the sport’s top players have never really seen what it’s like to be knocked down as much as Dubnyk had been going into the beginning of last season. A former 14th overall pick by Edmonton, it looked as if NHL glory was only a matter of time for Dubs. But playing on those young and defensively inept Oilers teams took their toll on Dubs and he eventually found himself traded twice in one year and demoted to the AHL that same year.
Unsure of if he could even get back into the NHL for the next season, Dubnyk had to convince the Arizona Coyotes he was still up to the task and so they signed him for a value of 1-yr $800,000 to back-up Mike Smith. His previously deal negotiated with Edmonton was $3.5 million a season, so there was a pay-cut for sure but Dubnyk just needed a chance to play.
Recognizing the need to make his game better he decided to take part of that summer to attend Andy O’Brien fitness camp where he learned a new technique from Stephen Valiquette. Called Head Trajectory Dubnyk describes it to NHL.com as “”You discover you have to move a whole lot less than you used to feel you need to. It’s such small movements forward and just closing off the angle of the puck, and when you start to realize that and you realize how big you are when you put yourself in the right position — and that’s a big part of it — you start to feel comfortable and then you can be patient on your feet. You can sit there and let plays happen in front of you and not be going down early, and everything kind of comes with it once you realize how big you are.”You discover you have to move a whole lot less than you used to feel you need to. It’s such small movements forward and just closing off the angle of the puck, and when you start to realize that and you realize how big you are when you put yourself in the right position — and that’s a big part of it — you start to feel comfortable and then you can be patient on your feet. You can sit there and let plays happen in front of you and not be going down early, and everything kind of comes with it once you realize how big you are.”
That week along with help from Coyotes’ goaltending coach Sean Burke to get his confidence back brought Dubnyk back better than ever. Now armed with a new way of thinking of the game, Dubnyk has mixed that with the feelings of being almost knocked out of the league for good to become stronger and more determined than just about any goaltender in the league. He knows what it takes to pick himself up and that resiliency shows in every break of the game now. If you can beat Dubs on one play, but you’ll never defeat him. He’s been too far to let you.
Perhaps even more than resiliency is the perspective that Dubnyk’s experiences have shown him. Many players become so locked in the nuances of playing hockey, that they forget why they play the game. Dubnyk has learned that lesson and it’s made him better, because he now knows why plays and it gives him a motivation to battle each second of the game.
His acceptance of the Masterton Trophy during last offseason tells you all you need to know. Dubs is someone who feels that the concentration of all the things he has outside of hockey have made him better. In his speech he recognizes how realizing that he has such a great family and friends around him “kinda lets you take a breath and just takes the pressure off”. Now that’s spoken from a man who can’t be completely beaten by what you do to him on the Ice. He’s playing for much more than you think.
The Devan Dubnyk everyone saw in March is the Dubs that saved the team last year. He arguably did it again in a smaller amount of time. He took his determination and perspective and turned it into a motivation to win that like last year propelled his team up in the standings when they needed it most. His ability to fight and give the team all he’s got from moment to moment…that’s why Dubs is anything other than “average”.
Danny Lambert has been covering the Minnesota Wild for some time now, and is back again as contributor to THW staff. A native Minnesotan he’s always had his eye on the State of Hockey and is proud to write and represent such a great market and fans. Follow him on Twitter at @dannylambert17