By Allan Muir
Looking for an emerging theme as this abbreviated NHL season steams toward the quarter pole?
How about goaltender redemption.
Take Roberto Luongo, the Vancouver stopper who began the year with a For Sale sign draped around his neck. He put the trade talk out of his head, reconnected with his mojo and seized the starting job from Cory Schneider.
Corey Crawford, whose leaky five-hole led to the Blackhawks being dumped in the first round last spring, changed up his pregame routine and has found the consistency that eluded him for painful stretches in the past.
Antti Niemi, held up as hockey’s answer to Trent Dilfer after winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, has bounced back from his own soft playoff performance for San Jose to lead the league’s stingiest defense in the early going.
And then there’s Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk.
Fans in Toronto and Philly are legendary for making bombing runs at their goaltenders, but even they haven’t mocked the capability of the home team’s keeper the way Oilers fans have with Dubnyk.
This is a town where sports radio shows get call-ins demanding that the team start Yann Danis. How did things get to that point?
Truthfully, Dubnyk brought some of that on himself as a young player learning to find consistency in his game. Like Luongo, Crawford and Niemi, he had a tendency to lose focus and give up goals at the worst possible moments.
But here he is, his splendid start making his detractors forget Danis. The 2004 first-rounder is 4-3-2 with a 2.56 GAA and .935 save percentage, despite playing behind a gaffe-prone defense that routinely leaves him to his own devices. Through nine appearances he’s faced a league-leading 295 shots, 40 more than runner-up Ryan Miller. It’s not as easy to quantify quality scoring chances, but the eye tells you that he’s yet to face fewer than the guy at the other end of the ice.
But even with the extra work, Dubnyk has found a way to minimize the impact of his demons.
“With him, it was always probably confidence and focus,” says a Western Conference scout. “Last season, you could see when he was losing it. He’d give up a big rebound and he’d get frustrated and he’d have to scramble to make a stop and … you could see it in his eyes. Next thing you know, he’s fishing [the puck] out [of the net].
“This year he seems like he has his mental game in order. If something goes wrong, he reels it in and gets it under control. He’s controlling his rebounds. The puck’s hitting him square. And he’s making good reads. I’ve seen him make a couple of great cross-crease stops I don’t think he would have made last year.
“He’s at that age now where goalies start to put it together physically. He’s always been big and athletic, but he looks more comfortable in his own skin…with his size and athleticism…he’s really putting the whole package together.”
“Honestly, I’m happy for him. He’s a good kid. I’m glad to see him getting his game together.”
Your eyes can tell you that Dubnyk looks the part of a reliable starter, but what do the numbers say? Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal put together a stat-happy look at where Dubnyk stands in comparison to other top starters at a similar spot in their careers. His conclusion: “Devan Dubnyk very much looks like he could be a legitimate starting goalie in Edmonton for a long time.”
In the past, Dubnyk has been described as a player who gets better as the season wears on. That’s a nice rep on a team heading to the playoffs, but in Edmonton the insinuation is that he plays his best when there’s nothing on the line.
That’s clearly not the case this year. Outside of a brutal first period against San Jose in his second game, he’s been giving the young Oilers a chance to build toward the postseason.
It’s still early, but it looks like Dubnyk has let go of his past. Maybe soon, Edmonton fans will, too.