Two months ago the Minnesota Wild’s 2014-15 campaign hit an F-bombed nadir.
The team had lost eight of 10 and was in serious danger of whiffing on the playoffs in a year it was supposed to take another step forward. The Wild’s then No. 1 goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, was scratched and called out publicly. And, most memorable of all, head coach Mike Yeo lost his temper on his players mid-practice, unleashing a profanity-punctuated tirade on an underachieving group.
Some thought Yeo would go the way of Randy Carlyle, but general manager Chuck Fletcher stuck with his man and found a new goalie, trading a third-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Devan Dubynk on Jan. 14.
It was a sure sign the Coyotes were embracing the tank and that the Wild were not.
It was also “an act of desperation,” Fletcher admitted Wednesday on Hockey Central at Noon.
“We were lucky. Devan’s played great,” Fletcher said on-air. “It’s not easy to find goaltenders at that time of the year. I wish I could tell you it was a stroke of genius.”
Since the Dubnyk deal, the Wild have gone 19-4-2. Dubnyk’s 28 wins rank eighth-best among NHL goalies, his six shutouts place him fourth, and his sparkling .928 save percentage is second only to Carey “Hart Talk” Price among goaltenders who’ve appeared in at least 15 games.
“We had dug such a big hole through November, December and the early part of January, it’s taken us an 18-4 record to just climb back in,” Fletcher said. “We’re very, very lucky to have climbed back in and given ourselves a chance here.”
Fletcher credited Arizona general manager Don Maloney for taking a chance on signing Dubnyk to a one-year deal back in July, and to Coyotes coaches Dave Tippett and Sean Burke for helping Dubnyk regain his confidence and his game after being traded twice and waived last season. (Dubnyk described his “head trajectory” puck-tracking technique to NHL.com.)
“Nobody could’ve predicted how well he would’ve played, so we’re very grateful for what he’s done,” Fletcher said. “We knew we had to bring a new guy in. We had to do something just to win one game. We were losing every night, and losing badly every night.”
Since the Dubnyk trade, the en fuego Wild have zipped from the fringes of playoff picture to the No. 1 wild-card slot in the Western Conference and within three points of Chicago for the Central Division’s third seed.
So, yes, Dubnyk — a bargain $800,000 cap hit — should be assured a healthy raise when he turns UFA on July 1. Complicating matters, Kuemper ($1.25 million) and Niklas Backstrom ($3.417 million) are both signed through 2015-16.
But the Wild is narrowing its focus to the tournament in April.
“It just doesn’t make sense right now to introduce a contract negotiation dynamic into the room,” Fletcher explained. “We’re a good fit for Devan, and he’s a good fit for us, and there will be plenty of time at the end of year to address this.”
Right now, there are more saves to make.