Devan Dubnyk became the savior of the Wild’s season after landing on the roster while the team was in Buffalo. He turned a weakness into a strength as he backstopped the team from far out of the playoff picture straight into the postseason. In doing so, he earned himself a Masterton Trophy for perseverance as well as becoming a finalist for the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) and being part of the conversation for the Hart Trophy (MVP). Dubnyk put up some incredible numbers in doing so including a 27-9 record, 1.78 GAA and incredible .936 SV%. While those numbers scream "unsustainable" and some regression is likely to occur, Dubnyk is still set up to lead the league in wins for two reasons: skill and context. Let’s explore.
Dubnyk infamously almost found himself without a job in the NHL following a disastrous season behind a young and defensively inept Edmonton Oilers team in 2013-14. His SV% dropped from an excellent .920 the previous season to a paltry .894 and he was traded to Nashville and then Montreal where he saw negligible action. Another defensively porous team took a low-risk gamble on Dubnyk and he was on his way to Arizona to back up top G Mike Smith. It was in Arizona that Dubnyk went to work with Goaltending Coach Sean Burke, who began to teach him a newer technique called Head Trajectory, which supposedly revolutionized Dubnyk’s game. Dubnyk played in 16 games for Arizona before being traded and posted a .916 SV% and 2.72 GAA in front of a lackluster defensive core, outshining Mike Smith and earning himself a trade to Minnesota.
Head trajectory was certainly the accepted narrative behind Dubnyk’s revival, but the raw numbers don’t tell the full tale of what was really happening. The graph below represents a scatter plot of Dubnyk’s SV% mapped against clean shots (A clean shot is when a goalie can line up while setting depth and angle using minimal lateral movement. Thank you Chris Boyle) As you can see below, Dubnyk’s SV% when facing 90%+ clean shots is locked in at .937. What isn’t immediately clear in the graph is that these numbers were captured over the previous 2 seasons, which encapsulates Duby’s nightmare .894 SV% 3.36 GAA season in Edmonton. The evidence here suggests that Dubnyk has excelled against clean shots, even when his overall numbers looked dismal.
Upon joining the Wild, Dubnyk found himself a part of a shot suppressing, suffocating defense that was respected around the league. That defense has been built on sound fundamentals of great skating and excellent passing defenders but is underrated in quality of shots allowed. In the Wild, Dubnyk found a team that would allow him the best chance to succeed by giving him a clean look at shots coming in. Dubnyk is elite, stopping 97.6% of low percentage shots, and the Wild are a perfect partner by allowing the 5th lowest high-danger shots and putting him in the perfect position to be successful. (thank you War On Ice)
So now that we understand a little bit more about why Dubnyk’s numbers last year weren’t a fluke, let’s take a look at the second reason: context. We already know that Dubnyk has found himself a happy home in a defensively minded and capable team. But it takes more than that to lead the league in wins. In order to capture that title, a netminder also must be in the net on a regular basis for a team that also scores enough goals to win. We’ve already learned that the Wild will be in The top 5 in scoring, so we can count the offense as a positive after a resurgence last year (the Wild scored more goals than the Blackhawks, for example).
The next factor comes from Dubnyk being in the net. We saw first-hand last season that Dubnyk can be an Ironman, as he started an epic 38 games straight while posting those incredible numbers in Minnesota, so we know that his body is able to handle it and that he wants to be in the net. The other determining factor comes in the amount of games that Dubnyk will play and thus earn the opportunity to win. Though the team is carrying two backup goaltenders, neither have had a sterling reputation of late. Niklas Backstrom has been injured and Darcy Kuemper has been ineffective, both factors that led to Duby’s 38-game streak. We also know that coach Mike Yeo tends only to lean on those players he trusts, especially in pressure situations. The Wild play in the ultra-competitive Central Division, so there’s no real hope of them finding much comfort in the standings this year. Afterall, it wouldn’t be a Wild season without some drama and having to fight their way into the playoffs. Wild fans were treated for 4 months of playoff hockey last year as every game was critical to making the playoffs after falling in such a large hole. The coach has intimated his intentions to play Darcy Kuemper more this year and give Dubnyk a rest, but this is assuredly to raise Kuemper’s trade value. As Kuemper plays a few games, he will either raise his value to an adequate level and be traded away, or he will continue to be ineffective, forcing the coach to continue to rely on Dubnyk to endlessly start games in high pressure situations.
Devan Dubnyk saved the Wild’s season. He posted ridiculous numbers. They may regress a bit, but they are not a fluke and his performance is repeatable as long as he stays healthy. All of this means very good things for the Wild. Here are Duby's career stats from Hockey-Reference and some incredible Dubnyk Highlights