Devan Dubnyk’s remarkable rise from AHL backup to Minnesota Wild starting netminder has been one of the great stories of this season. But how did Dubnyk get here, and what’s next for the unrestricted free agent to be?
What everyone in the hockey world wants to know is how a goalie can go from having an .893 save percentage in the American League less than a year ago to being the toast of the NHL. That was the question of the day for the Devan Dubnyk Road Show™. So how has Devan Dubnyk gone from being an afterthought on the Montreal Canadiens roster in last year’s playoffs to getting himself at least into the conversation for the Hart Trophy with the Minnesota Wild?
As it turns out, it was all in his head, both literally and figuratively. Dubnyk excused himself from the Canadiens last spring after a season that had taken an enormous mental toll on him. After the Canadiens dispatched the Boston Bruins in the second round of the playoffs, Dubnyk asked the team if he could go back to Edmonton to be with his family. Even though Carey Price went down in the next round, he was still stuck behind Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski on the Canadiens depth chart. Had he thought there would be any chance he would play, Dubnyk would have stuck around.
“I thought I just had to go and be a dad,” Dubnyk said. “And after the season I had had last year, I wanted to just hit the reset button.”
That took care of the mental, but the literal still needed addressing. And that’s where former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette came in. The analyst for the Madison Square Garden network and goaltending consultant introduced Dubnyk to a goaltending technique known as Head Trajectory, which is the brainchild of a man by the name of Lyle Mast, the goaltending coach for the Tri-City Americans of the Western League and a goaltending consultant for a host of NHL players and teams.
You may not have heard of Head Trajectory or Lyle Mast, but those in the goaltending community think Mast and Head Trajectory could revolutionize the position the same way the butterfly did. Mast has spent the past 13 years working with NASA engineers and eye specialists to perfect his concept and has even trademarked the term for goaltending purposes.
And Dubnyk is fully on board. He refers to Mast as “the genius behind the idea” and says the work he did with Valiquette, who is working with Mast, in Colorado last summer is a big part of his success this season. “I’m just scratching the surface with it,” Dubnyk said. “It helps you find pucks and it allows you to be bigger when you find angles on the puck in different spots.”
In the future, you’re going to hear an awful lot about ‘tracking’ the puck when it comes to goalies. Basically, tracking the puck for a goaltender is following the puck with the head, not just the eyes. “But that starts with finding it,” Dubnyk said. “The earlier you can meet it, the easier it’s going to be.”
It all sounds basic enough, but Mast has put a tremendous amount of work into perfecting his method. The idea behind tracking is that once a goalie learns how to track the puck properly, it essentially enhances the abilities he uses to stop it. In the case of Dubnyk, who measures in at 6-foot-6 and 202 pounds, it allows him to use his size even more and make himself even more imposing in the net. In fact, on his Optimum Reaction (OR) Sports website, Mast says the constant quality among top goalies is not style, athleticism or technical ability, but “establishing or maintaining proper ‘visual attachment’ on the puck.”
“The way you track, you’ll either hinder or enhance every move,” Mast said. “The only way really to become faster as a goaltender, to continue to advance your game is to eliminate delays in your movement. You don’t get faster by just being a physical specimen. You get faster by eliminating delays and they’re either taken out or they’re there based on how you track.”
Think Jonathan Quick, who is coached by Bill Ranford, who is an early disciple of the technique. When there is traffic around him, Quick is constantly low to the ice, seemingly looking through a sea of legs to know exactly where the puck is at all times. And that allows him to use his freakish ability to move around the crease to its maximum potential.
And so it goes with Dubnyk, who took an enormous pay cut to sign with the Arizona Coyotes this season. By the time the Wild traded a third-round pick to get him in January, it was just a $378,000 gamble for Minnesota. Dubnyk has provided the Wild with the goaltending it has desperately needed, but those in the analytics community will say that playing for the Wild does have its advantages. After all, these guys made Ilya Bryzgalov look good last season.
“His play has certainly helped the rest of the group concentrate on their own game,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo. “A lot of the credit has to go to Devan without question, but a lot of the credit has to go to the game the players are playing in front of Devan as well and he’d be the first one to say that.”
Which should all make for an interesting negotiation this summer. The Wild will want to reward Dubnyk for his work, but he’s also on his fifth organization in just over a year. The Coyotes pulled Mike Smith off the scrap heap, then gave him a six-year, big-money deal after an outstanding season. And it hasn’t worked out well at all.
But if both sides are reasonable and respectful in their demands, there’s no reason to believe a deal can’t get done. “We have a pretty big payroll and have a lot of big-cap guys on the team as well,” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. “So whether it’s Devan or anybody else, we’re going to have to be responsible with our dollars.”