“I hope Duby’s ready.” — Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota Wild head coach
TORONTO – Devan Dubnyk woke up this morning to an unexpected text message from his friend and understudy, Alex Stalock, who was supposed to start Wednesday’s game for the Minnesota Wild against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I know we’re buddies, but I just saw him last night,” says Dubnyk says, with a smile.
Stalock was summoned back to Minnesota for the birth of his daughter, so Dubnyk gets a surprise and immediate chance to redeem his team after Monday’s debacle in Boston.
Boudreau pulled his No. 1 goalie—one of the NHL’s best over the past three seasons—then compared his team to the Keystone Cops in his post-game frustration.
The Wild view themselves as a contender, and yet Minnesota (5-6-2) has sunk to the bottom of the Central Division. The 31-year-old Dubnyk is coming off his first 40-win season, yet his early-season numbers (4-5-1, 3.03 GAA, .907 save percentage) haven’t been this poor since 2014, when he bottomed-out professionally with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs.
Dubnyk’s confidence hasn’t taken a hit, though. Not even close.
We sat down with the insightful goaltender to discuss the Wild’s identity struggles, goalie psychology, Carey Price’s Bronx cheer, and how to handle the Maple Leafs.
SPORTSNET.CA: Bruce Boudreau used the word “embarrassing” to describe the team’s play in Boston. When a coach does that, what effect does it have on the dressing room?
DEVAN DUBNYK: It’s not anything we didn’t agree with. Every single guy in the room is probably thinking the exact same thing. We’re all embarrassed with the first two periods of that game, and when we’re having a tough time getting consistently rolling and we have a hard-fought game against Chicago, that makes Boston sting that much more. Simple fact is, that’s been the story of our year so far. We have small spurts of play that isn’t good enough, and that was the peak of it last game.
Have you learned what works to turn the tide when your team is slumping?
What’s so frustrating with us is, we’ve been together for a while as a group and we know our identity. We know what we need to do to win. We’re one of the best—if not the best forechecking team around. Watch our game tape. We put the puck in their end, away from their goalie, and you won’t find a group that can get the puck back better. That’s how we create. We’re not a back-and-forth, odd-man-rush, chance-for-chance team. We get our chances by retrieving pucks. That’s what we need to get back to.
Now, when things don’t go great, naturally people try to do more because they want to help. That’s why they’re here: They care. But we need to get back to our identity.
The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, have plenty of forwards who are dangerous off the rush. When two contrasting styles meet, what gives one the edge?
Depends who executes better. If you watch a game, almost every single rush opportunity happens due to neutral-zone turnovers; only the odd one is a chip past a defenceman. Quick turnovers don’t give defencemen a chance to gap up, the forwards can’t give back pressure, the defencemen sink, and that’s how chances are made. If the team that likes to forecheck doesn’t get the puck deep on an odd-man-rush team, that’s advantage odd-man-rush team. It’s really about puck management.
When you play an Eastern Conference team that you only see twice a year, how much more video of shooters do you watch?
I watch hockey. You see highlights. When you’ve been around a while, you know how different guys score. You might take a peek at a new guy. But for the most part, I’m looking at very small tendencies. A guy like Patrik Laine wants to shoot the puck. A guy like Auston Matthews is capable of both [passing and shooting], so you throw that out the window and read and react. You can’t be overthinking things with him.
Matthews aside, which Leafs player’s shot you must respect?
That Mitch Marner can shoot the puck. I remember a couple times on the power play last year, him curling around the strong side and coming in through the dot and ripping it pretty good. He’s definitely a guy to watch. They’ve got a bunch of skilled guys to watch. Fun challenge. It’s always one of my favourite times coming to Toronto once a year.
How do you assess your own game this season?
It’s funny. I hate sitting here and telling you I feel good because the numbers certainly don’t show that.
I know you guys are last in your division, but there are other top-tier goalies whose numbers have slid more than yours.
No, they’re not that bad. There’s been some strange bounces. And it’s early, so there’s lots of time to make them better. I’m not somebody who uses numbers as the basis of how I think I’m playing. As a whole, I feel great in the games. I feel great reading plays. Everything feels good. It’s been a little frustrating here and there because it doesn’t turn into the results you want. Being around long enough, I understand the most important thing is to not let that change what you’re doing. If there’s a few things I need to sharpen, which there always is, then work on that. But I don’t want to change what I’m doing if I feel right there. I expect high-quality play from myself, and I won’t be happy otherwise.
Did you ever see a sports psychologist?
I saw quite a few growing up. One I really worked with in Edmonton was Dr. Kimberley Amirault. She was with the team at the time. I have a laid-back approach to things, so she was nice to talk to. As I’ve got older and really understood my game, when a goal does go in, I think: What did you do? What should you have done?
You immediately analyze it?
Yep. It’s quick. Usually you already know what you should’ve done. You don’t need to analyze. I sat back, or whatever it is. It’s bang-bang. Don’t do that next time. Leave it alone. These are all things that come with playing more games and being comfortable with your own game. Being confident in knowing what I need to do to be good allows me to give myself a slap when a goal goes in and don’t let it happen again.
Thursday you’re in Montreal. When you see an elite goalie like Carey Price take heat for his slow start, you must empathize.
Oh, yeah. All day. Gosh, I’ve been in that situation in Edmonton. People can say whatever they want. “Oh, look, he’s making so much money…” That doesn’t matter. This is one of the most competitive guys, one of the best goalies in the world—that hasn’t changed. He’s still one of the best in the world. You feel for him. I know what that feels like. A start like that makes day-to-day life not a lot of fun, and he’s going to get out of it, no problem. But that certainly doesn’t make it any easier when you’re in it.
Ever had the Bronx cheer on an easy save?
I don’t think anybody knows what it’s like to get that in Montreal. That’s a whole other ballgame. I did get a few in Edmonton, though. Probably deserved. [laughs] I had a couple undeserved ones in Edmonton, too.
How does that make you feel?
It’s about the worst feeling. It makes you angry and embarrassed at the same time. Those are not good emotions to be having when you’re trying to play a hockey game. Those are the worst two emotions while trying to win a game, and they fill you up fast when you hear a sarcastic cheer.
You’ve been a big proponent of the head-tracking technique. Did you tinker with anything stylistically over the summer?
Just continued with the head-tracking with the skating. That’s something I’ll be driving home till I’m done playing. It’s such an important thing that pertains to every aspect of your game. It’s fun learning things like, “Hey, my entire life I wasn’t looking down on this certain play.” You don’t know it matters.
Each summer I’m learning more, looking at video. Hey, if this play continues to happen and you’re doing the same thing over and over, I’ll start looking down [on the puck] properly. Then you add that to your game and, whoa, this play’s a lot easier! It used to be hard. The most fun for me is when you feel it come and go. Then when you feel it go… boom! You know exactly what to do to get it back. Before, when you didn’t know what the problem was, it would come and go, and you don’t know why one time you felt great on a shot and the next you pulled away. Each year, I can piece it together more and more.
High-danger versus low-danger save percentage has become a topical discussion for goalies. Is that something you analyze?
You play the game and try to stop every chance you get. Realistically, the team that gives up fewer high-quality chances is going to be in a better spot. The biggest thing is you work on your skating and you work on your tracking. Some games you’ll get one or two A scoring chances and eight or nine B scoring chances. Some games you’ll get 10 Grade-As. If you’re skating well, looking at it, you’re putting yourself in the best position to stop it, regardless if there’s one Grade-A or 10 Grade-As. Goalie is a reactionary position. You can’t make 50 saves if there’s only 10 shots. I got pulled last game. I can’t say I’m going to make 50 saves in Montreal to make up for it.
Is there ever a time when you think, “You know what? It was probably best I got pulled”?
I never want to get pulled. I wouldn’t have told you that six years ago. But with this team, I have a ton of confidence in them. I always feel like I’m in a control. That’s because we have a veteran group and we play a good game. Even after a [bad] second period, like in Boston, I never feel out of control. Knowing what I need to do to feel good, it doesn’t matter if it’s five or six [goals against] halfway through. It doesn’t need to be eight if I stick to what I’m doing. I never feel like it’s going to be 12. I never want to be pulled. Saying that, I understand it’s the coach’s decision, and I’m never upset about it.