Try as he might, Sidney Crosby couldn’t put one by Devan Dubnyk. Crosby’s face reddened. Dubnyk didn’t smile but his default expression is that of imperturbability and that was enough to send Crosby into a rage. Crosby muttered as Dubnyk got in front of one shot after another, five, then 10. Dubnyk was unflappable. Crosby was completely flapped.
Okay, you’re versed in the history of No. 87 and you don’t remember this game. You may even say it never happened. It did. It just wasn’t in an NHL arena or in junior hockey or during an off-season workout. It wasn’t on ice at all.
It was a sequence over a ping-pong table.
It went down at the Canadian team’s hotel at the 2003 summer under-18s tournament in Breclav, Czech Republic, back before Crosby had ever played a game in the Quebec league. I watched it play out for an hour or so. To fully set the scene: a crummy hotel; a slightly crooked ping-pong table; beat-up racquets with almost no rubber facing left; the presumptive phenom at one end; and the lanky backup goalie at the other.
The phenom couldn’t win a game and demanded rematch after rematch hoping that his luck would change even though it was clear that it wouldn’t. “I sort of remember it,” Dubnyk says, sitting at his stall after a Minnesota Wild practice. “Mostly I remember that it was an awful hotel with awful food and it was in the middle of a heat wave.”
Those games to 11 provided the first impressions I had of Crosby — the tournament was just getting underway days after his 16th birthday. He competed like he was possessed at something as trivial as table-tennis. Might as well have been the fifth set in the men’s final at Wimbledon.
That was also the first impression I had of Devan Dubnyk, and I figured it might be the only one I’d have. Would he ever be a player? No guarantee. Nothing in that tournament indicated that Dubnyk would make it as a pro. Okay, he got in front of everything and had elite hand-eye wiring, but still, there’s no reasonable line you can draw between table tennis and an NHL goaltender’s skill set. Still, it stuck with me: a quiet kid who seemed almost sheepish that he was winning, maybe a bit bemused by it; a kid who didn’t betray any distress about the fact that he was giving up a good chunk of his summer and risking food poisoning to be a backup; a kid just happy to be there and come away with a Team Canada sweater.
Is that seemingly emotionless flat line the make-up of a kid who’s going to make it as a pro? I would have said no. And I would have been dead wrong. If anything, that’s probably a reason, maybe a big reason, maybe the big reason he’s still out there.
In the years since, it hasn’t always been that flat line. Those who know the Devan Dubnyk story know that his career has been anything but flat, anything but a straight line. And if his emotions didn’t swing with the ups and downs he would have to lack a pulse.
I’ll admit I was surprised to see Dubnyk’s name slotted No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting’s rankings of North American goalies for the 2004 class. He had good numbers in his draft year with Kamloops — a 2.51 GAA with a .917 save percentage in 44 games. But going from backup to ace prospect in a matter of months is just not the everyday. After the Blazers were knocked out of the playoffs, he joined the Canadian team at the world under-18s and had a nice run in six starts but didn’t come back with a medal. The Edmonton Oilers wound up selecting Dubnyk 14th overall. The guy he couldn’t bump from the starting role with the 2003 summer team, Julien Ellis of Shawinigan, went to Vancouver in the sixth round. I put the Dubnyk ascension down to one of those quirks of the quirkiest hockey position. It’s not meant for the rest of us to understand.
At the draft, Dubnyk made a big impression on people. Going in, they knew he was smart — and it wasn’t just that he was named the CHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year. The Oilers talked up the fact he took a systematic approach to the game, even keeping a book on shooters around the Dub. What really caught the media off-guard was how funny he was, funny in a completely self-deprecating way. When asked about his weight and strength — he managed just one rep on the bench and 10 push-ups at the combine — Dubnyk told reporters that he had just topped 200 lb. for the first time. “Big lunch,” he said. Asked if he had finishing growing, he had another snappy comeback: “Well, I’ve at least slowed down.”
Lots of stuff gets said at drafts, especially when you’ve spent a first-rounder, and management in Edmonton was bullish on him. Then Oilers head scout Kevin Prendergast said Dubnyk had “leadership qualities” and “would be a captain of a team if he weren’t a goalie.” He even compared him to, gulp, Patrick Roy on that count. It wasn’t the impression I’d come away with, but Edmonton had done homework on him. They would have known him going back to his time playing bantam and minor midget in Calgary. And when Prendergast said the Oilers were going to be in need of a netminder a few years down the line, he was definitely shooting straight, given that the team had Ty Conklin, Jussi Markkanen and nothing much else. Dubnyk was anointed the Goaltender of the Future, because that’s how those things go.
The Regina native paid his dues, suffered for his art: two seasons in junior after his draft year; a full season, at 20, in the ECHL; two more in the AHL; then, at 23, a season split between the AHL and the big club; and then finally sticking in Edmonton at the start of the 2010–11 campaign. “As a young player you have no idea what it’s going to take. And that’s probably a good thing, because it’s pretty daunting,” he says. “I was called up 11 times, up and down, from Springfield. Like all young goalies, I thought I could get [to the NHL] fast but it’s really so rare.”
A common thread: from the AHL through to the Oil, Dubnyk saw the backs of a lot of ordinary players and weak teams. He won’t throw anyone under the bus, but he put in the work and was set up to fail. It didn’t happen right away, mind you, but management was a mess, the team was directionless and it was all too fragile not to come down.
Dubnyk crashed in 2013–14. “It was a perfect storm,” he says. A storm, as it turned out, at the worst possible time given that it was the final year of a contract paying him $3.25 million per. His goals against soared to 3.36 and his save percentage dipped into the .890s. Fans and media were on him. “It’s not a place to be when things aren’t going good,” Dubnyk says, roughly akin to an ant pinned under a magnifying glass bemoaning the sun. Edmonton’s Goaltender of the Future joined the list of Edmonton draft casualties. When he was traded to Nashville for Matt Hendricks, the Oilers regarded it as an act of mercy and economy, given they’d only have to pay half his salary. The Predators were grasping for help given that Pekka Rinne was down — why not go for a body double?
Alas, the folks in charge of Nashville couldn’t even work up enthusiasm for the idea before it was tested. GM David Poile lamented that Dubnyk was too weak to have success in the league. Coach Barry Trotz said he didn’t “want to throw Devan under the bus” after Dubnyk’s first game, a bit of a shelling, then promptly did so, backing the bus up a couple of times for good measure. “Devan’s first start wasn’t great,” Trotz said. “He’s got to be a lot better. He’s a veteran hockey player in the National Hockey League. I felt that three of the five goals were very stoppable in this league.”
He later added: “What we realized very quickly was that Devan has a lot of… I’ll say bad habits he’s picked up this year. You could really see he was out of sync in his game, so we wanted to spend some time with him working with [goalie coach] Mitch Korn, just being able to get his game in order.”
Welcome to Nashville, don’t unpack your bags.
Dubnyk got one more start with the Predators before they waived him and he went unclaimed. Poile dealt him to Montreal for future considerations. It wasn’t the opportunity it might have sounded like when the deal was announced. He wasn’t going to get a chance to be Carey Price’s backup, not while Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj had Michel Therrien’s confidence. The Canadiens sent Dubnyk to the Hamilton Bulldogs. “That’s falling a long way,” says Dubnyk’s agent, Mike Liut. “He wasn’t even the starter in Hamilton. He was part of a three-man rotation. Goaltenders have bad seasons. I had bad seasons. Devan was going through as tough a time as anybody I’ve represented.”
It was at that point that Devan Dubnyk just wanted to pack it in. His struggles were those of a goaltender, painfully obvious. The player most fully dressed is the one who might as well stand naked out on the ice when he’s lost his game. His wife was back at home — he had been in Nashville so briefly that she had stayed in Alberta with their 10-month-old son. Coming to Hamilton, to the bus league, just didn’t make sense. Dubnyk told the front office that he wanted to go home and GM Marc Bergevin did an extraordinary thing: He told him to go ahead.
“I just felt that there was another place I had to be, that nothing else I was doing mattered as much as anything I could do at home,” Dubnyk says. “We still had our place in Edmonton and maybe you’d think that wouldn’t be the best place to go back to after what I had gone through, but it was what I needed. I needed to be around family and friends who didn’t care if I was a good goalie or a bad goalie or a goalie at all.”
NHL players take note: This is not how you want your contract season to play out.
To whatever extent Dubnyk felt cursed, it was only compounded when Carey Price went down that spring and Tokarski briefly became a household name during the Canadiens’ playoff run. Another chance gone by the wayside.
Dubnyk told Liut that he thought that there’d still be someone out there interested in him, someone who would have some money. “I told Devan, ‘You’re not going to like what I’m going to tell you,’ but he understood,” Liut says. “I hadn’t lost confidence in him and he believed in himself. He needed a chance just to convince someone else.”
Dubnyk signed the only offer that came his way: a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Phoenix Coyotes with the understanding that he’d be Mike Smith’s understudy. Smith had a reputation as a workhorse and Dubnyk had reason to think that he might find starts hard to come by. Liut vouched for coach Dave Tippett, told Dubnyk that he was good with goalies. Liut also endorsed goaltending coach Sean Burke, who had turned around Smith’s mixed fortunes when he arrived in Phoenix under circumstances and after struggles much like Dubnyk’s own. Agent and client both appreciated that a goalie is in a unique position in the market, the one role in hockey where a comeback is even possible — unlikely, but possible. “We’ll laugh about this someday,” Liut told his client.
Dubnyk recommitted himself to a career reboot. “I prided myself on work, but I decided that I wasn’t going to leave anything on the table. [I was going to] work harder that summer than ever before,” he says. “I didn’t change my game. I changed my work on the game — I worked with the Oilers strength and conditioning coach and I was on the ice with the Oilers’ prospects and some other young players. I worked out with James Reimer, a friend of mine for some time.”
Fans recognize the game’s most obvious pressures: a tie game late, overtime, Game 7. Being an occasional backup on a team with no shot at the playoffs does not sound like one of those high-pressure jobs. It sounds like something Dubnyk could have settled into. “I never stopped believing that I could be a starter in the league and that’s what I went to the Coyotes to do,” he says.
Phoenix games that looked like just another line on the NHL schedule were the biggest of Devan Dubnyk’s career to that point — given his experience in Nashville, he understood that a short leash can feel awfully tight. Dubnyk wound up outplaying Smith for three months — his .916 save percentage looked solid enough, even more so given harder study. By the eye test and with analytical breakdowns, the weak Coyotes were giving up an awful lot of quality scoring chances, among the league’s worst on that count.
As important as the work was the philosophy and sense of himself and his game that Dubnyk acquired — or reacquired — with the Coyotes. “I had one really good game and Shane Doan came up to after me and told me to remember it when things are bumpy,” Dubnyk says. “Shane told me, ‘Remember that you’re the six-foot-six athletic goalie who stopped 50 shots. You’re always that.’ And really, I was thinking about every game way too much. In Edmonton and the rest of that awful year, I dug myself deeper and deeper, game to game.”
While it was analysis that had caused Dubnyk’s paralysis the previous season, analytics cemented the case for Minnesota that he was the netminder they wanted to pursue. “We ran the numbers on Devan before we made the deal with the Coyotes,” Wild GM Chuck Fletcher says. “He was a much better goalie than he had been given credit for and just needed a chance.”
In January, the 2014–15 season about half done, Fletcher acquired Dubnyk for a third-round pick, pretty much the cost of adding cheese to your sandwich. The Wild had been in the market for a goaltender and a lot of names had been floated. Dubnyk’s, though, had pretty much come out of the blue and it’s safe to presume that his low price tag played a huge part. Really, the circumstances didn’t look so very different than those in Nashville the season before. The most hopeless optimist among the Wild’s legion could not have foreseen what happened next: one of the most memorable runs by a goaltender in this century.
The events are already etched in Minnesota’s lore: The day of the trade, Dubnyk spent hours in transit and just barely made it to a game in Buffalo. Mike Yeo debated whether to give him a start. Dubnyk wound up with a shutout. And with the Wild fighting for a playoff spot, he started the next 38 games. His numbers were astonishing: 27-9-2 with a 1.72 GAA and a .936 save percentage. Minnesota made it into the playoffs and then on to the second round. Dubnyk wound up third in the Vezina Trophy race, was named to the NHL Second All-Star team and voted the winner of the Masterton Trophy. He not only came back from the annus horribilis but established himself at an altogether unprecedented level. He was a top-five netminder in the league.
After he signed a six-year deal paying him $4.3 million a season, Dubnyk told Liut: “You said we’d laugh about this someday, but who knew that we’d laugh this hard?”
Minnesota’s 2016–17 season hasn’t been Dubnyk’s career in microcosm but there have been swings. Back in December, the Wild were chasing the Presidents’ Trophy and the top seed in the Western Conference when Dubnyk’s save percentage was hovering in the .940s. In March, the team and goalie slumped but they seemed to be rounding into form in April. The coach, Bruce Boudreau, was neither talking Dubnyk up nor trashing him like Trotz had. That’s Boudreau’s history — he has always pretty much let goaltenders look after their own business. “Bruce doesn’t like to talk to me on game days, but I think he’s better with that now,” Dubnyk says. “And really I’m fine with it.
If Minnesota makes a run in the playoffs this spring, it will start from the net out, like it pretty much always does. The opening game of the Wild’s series against St. Louis was stolen in overtime by the Blues’ Jake Allen, a goalie who has also struggled and been scapegoated. In Game 2 it was much the same scenario, a 2-1 win by the visitors with Minnesota’s shooters gone ice cold.
Maybe Allen and the Blues will go on a roll like Dubnyk and the Wild did over that glorious half season. Maybe not. Even behind in the opening round, you’d have to think that in the Western Conference, Dubnyk is as likely as anyone to steal a game or a series — more likely than most. And a comeback in the opening round after losing the first two games at home is more likely than the personal comeback that Dubnyk mounted, from assignment to the AHL to Vezina finalist in 12 months.
When I spoke with Dubnyk, he was coming off a much-needed late-season win over San Jose in which he made a brutal puck-handling error that cost his team a goal. “Got away with one,” he said. I asked Dubnyk about his make-up. It was strange, but the conversation wound back to those table-tennis games. “You make a stop and then you make another,” he said. “You just have to make a play and be ready to make the next one. There’s just no time. You have to be right back at it. Just don’t get distracted by anything around you or what the other guys are saying or doing.”
That’s how things went sideways for Dubnyk before, but he thinks that Minnesota sets up for him much better than Edmonton did. “It’s a different environment here,” he says. “The fans are so supportive. Away from the rink they’re just very respectful and that’s not always the case other places.” He didn’t want to exhume stories about the struggles in Edmonton. “What’s done is done,” he says.
Dubnyk could land in the middle of some delicious storylines these playoffs. Minnesota could wind up facing Edmonton, where fans and media chased him out of town. Or Nashville, where the GM and coach knocked him. If the Wild were to go deep, Dubnyk might see Trotz behind the Capitals bench or be looking at Crosby on a breakaway.
“It’s not personal,” says Dubnyk.
He might be the only one who could see it that way.
Big Read: McDavid, Maroon and Draisaitl sparking a new boom in Edmonton
After a decade in the NHL’s wilderness, the Edmonton Oilers are alive with new hope thanks to an unstoppable trio with a generational talent at centre.