EDMONTON – Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is no longer just happy being in the NHL. He’s anxious to prove he’s ready for a primetime role with the Edmonton Oilers.
It’s unclear whether Dubnyk, selected 14th overall by Edmonton in the 2004 entry draft, has convinced coach Tom Renney to make him the club’s starter when it opens the regular season against Pittsburgh Oct. 9. But the numbers he’s put up in his competition with Nikolai Khabibulin are impressive.
The former Kamloops Blazers star has stopped 68-of-70 shots he’s faced in three exhibition games, including a 3-0 win over Calgary on Sunday. Dubnyk has a stingy 0.98 goals-against average and .971 save percentage.
Those certainly aren’t just happy to be here numbers.
“It’s funny,” Dubnyk said. “This year, I haven’t really thought about when I’m going to play. I haven’t approached games like this as an opportunity to show them I can be a starter.
“For me, it’s just kind of been that I’ve gone out and wanted to get myself ready, get right back to the things I was doing toward the end of the year last year that allowed me to be successful.”
Dubnyk, 25, has paid his dues. He has patiently waited his turn behind Dwayne Roloson, Jussi Markkanen, Mathieu Garon, Jeff Deslauriers and Khabibulin as he begins his third NHL season.
He has also played 142 minor-league games.
Two years ago, he was sent to Springfield of the AHL but was recalled for 19 games. Last season, after passing Deslauriers on the depth chart, Dubnyk appeared in 35 games while splitting duties with Khabibulin.
“I can’t even start to talk about the difference,” Dubnyk said of this camp compared to his first. “That first year, you’re star-struck when you show up. Everything happens so fast.
“There are times when you think to yourself, ‘Am I going to be able to get here?’ You wonder a little bit. You get to know the guys and playing the games you get the experience. You see you’re capable of playing.
“You get confidence that, ‘If I do what I need to do, I can play in this league.’ You get to the rink and you feel like you belong. It doesn’t mean you strut around, but it’s a different feeling.”
While Dubnyk looks ready to make the step to starter, Khabibulin, a veteran with 743 games and a 2004 Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay on his resume, is trying to rebound from a season that was disappointing on and off the ice.
Khabibulin, 38, in the third year of a four-year contract with Edmonton, played in 47 games. He posted a 10-32-4 record with a 3.40 GAA and .890 save percentage, worst among NHL starters.
Last summer, Khabibulin served a 15-day sentence in Arizona for a DUI conviction dating back to the 2009-10 season when a back injury limited him to 18 games.
“It’s competition, but it’s supportive,” Khabibulin said. “Ultimately, if we push each other, it forces us to get better. The winner in all that is the team. We both want to play.
“He (Dubnyk) is doing well and I’m happy for him. I’ve seen him developing, going from the minors all the way to being here now. I can see that he can play here, so . . .”
With Dubnyk coming on and Khabibulin looking to rebound, the tandem is an interesting study in the dynamic of two teammates looking for one starting job.
“I see two teammates who are completely driven to make sure this team gets its wins,” Renney said. “I see the high level of respect they have for each other.
“He (Dubnyk) has come a long way. I remember watching him a little bit as a junior. I think he’s grown. He’s matured physically. He’s always sort of had a real solid mental state, where he doesn’t get too wound up about much of anything, quite honestly. That’s a good place to be. Khabby is similar, for that matter.
“I still think that there’s a mentor-student thing happening here. There is a huge psychological component to the game, as well, dealing with the rigours of the schedule. There’s a real good give-and-take between the two guys. I see it being very healthy. If we’re going to win anything, we need both goaltenders playing very well.”
With 18 saves in a 3-2 win over Phoenix Tuesday, Khabibulin has fought back from a poor first outing when he allowed three goals on 10 shots in a 4-3 loss to Minnesota Sept. 20. He has a 2.38 GAA and .872 save percentage through three appearances.
Khabibulin and Dubnyk are expected to split starts in Minnesota on Friday and Vancouver on Sunday before Renney decides on his starter against Pittsburgh.
“He (Khabibulin) was fantastic last year with me,” Dubnyk said. “If I was playing well, he was extremely supportive. It was genuine. You can tell, and that helped a lot. It’s nice to have a partnership like that.
“When you truly both want the other guy to do well, I think you find that you both play better. That’s the case with us.”
In the end, Dubnyk doesn’t make the decisions. He stops pucks—enough of them, he hopes, to convince Renney he deserves the chance to be the go-to guy.
“Every single game, I want to make it a difficult decision not to put me in,” Dubnyk said. “That’s my job, especially when you’re trying to become the starting goalie.
“You want the coaching staff and your teammates to want you in there every night. That’s something you work on over a period of time. That’s not going to come after 10 good games. It’s two or three good seasons.
“You start out just wanting to make the league and be a back-up, you’re just happy to be on the bench. Then, you get a taste of it and you start to feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ When you get that confidence, that’s when you can really push.”