EDMONTON — You’ve got to hand it to Devan Dubnyk. He’s got no illusions about what went wrong for him 12 months ago in Edmonton.
“A year ago your career was all in front of you. Could you have done anything different,” he was asked Wednesday.
“Well,’ began Dubnyk, pausing for effect, “I could have stopped more pucks…”
Dubnyk spent a decade in the Oilers pipeline, drafted 14th overall in 2004 before carefully climbing up the organizational ladder over the course of eight pro seasons. He had more seasoning than a tasty prime rib roast — the East Coast League, backing up in the American League, an AHL starter, a back-up in Edmonton.
Finally he was deemed ready to take the No. 1 job and run with it last fall. It was his dream job. The nightmare lasted about two months.
He lost 11 of his first 14 starts, posted a sub-.900 saves percentage, then lost the starter’s job. By Jan. 15, he’d been dealt away from the only organization he’d ever known.
A year and three teams later, Dubnyk finds himself as Mike Smith’s backup in Arizona, facing the Oilers in a pre-season game Wednesday night at Rexall Place. He’s still not entirely sure what went wrong 12 months ago in Edmonton.
“You work hard to get that opportunity and it hurts when it goes away as quickly as it did,” he said, before stopping 30 of 33 Oilers shots in a 3-2 loss to Edmonton. “It’s crazy to think about, and certainly not something I’d want to experience again. I (didn’t) want to experience the first time. Hey, you go through things in life where you get an opportunity to choose the way it’s going to shape you.”
Dubnyk is one of the game’s really good people. That and an .894 saves percentage in Edmonton last year will get you traded to Nashville however. Then Montreal, then an assignment to AHL Hamilton. Dubnyk found a one-way, $800,000 deal to be Smith’s caddy in Glendale this season, under the tutelage of Sean Burke. It sounds, however, like Burke is going to do more work on the space between Dubnyk’s ears than between his pads, at least off the start.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when you start to doubt yourself, when you have a year where you bounce around a lot,” said Burke. “I’ve been in that situation myself… You never get into a rhythm.
“I want Devan to believe again he’s a top guy in this league. It’s body language in the net, it’s confidence and when any goalie, particularly one who’s big, (loses it) he can find it again.”
Burke played at six-foot-four, 209 lbs. Smith goes 6-4, 215, and you’ll recall his game was quite a mess when he came over from the Tampa Bay Lightning to work with Burke. So the theory goes that Dubnyk, who is six-foot-six, might be in exactly the right spot with Burke as a coach, and Smith as a guy to watch from up close 60 nights a season.
“That would be fantastic,” Dubnyk said, when asked if Burke could do for him what he did for Smith. “I don’t think Burkie will claim to be a miracle worker, but he puts a lot of confidence into you, makes you feel good about the way you play, then starts to work on things a little bit at a time.
“He’s the same stature as me and Smitty both, so he was real good at doing what he did when he played.”
Dubnyk is 28, has a baby who is barely a year old, and was staring at a career crossroads this past summer. Just getting a one-way contract was a feat. Now, he has to decide if his future is as that steady, likeable backup, with a future as a television analyst. Or can he possibly seize a second opportunity as a No. 1 man.
Especially after the disaster that was his initial opportunity. The Oilers won four of their first 21 games last fall. Their season was cooked by Grey Cup, and soon, Dubnyk got kicked through the goalposts.
“You pain for him,” said Oilers coach Dallas Eakins, looking back. “When they say (it was) a perfect storm, well, that means it’s really bad, right? It was a perfect storm last year. We weren’t great in front of him, he took a lot of criticism, and then the change came.”
“It’s a very fickle business,” said Dubnyk, a Regina native. “And, you get a much bigger appreciation for having an opportunity to play in the NHL. You come to the rink every day, you have a chance to get to do it again. You get a really strong appreciation for that after what I went through last year.”