Devan Dubnyk wasn’t the first player on the radar for the Oilers at the 2004 NHL Draft. He wasn’t the second or third player, either. And it’s easy to forget now, but at the time the Oilers were criticized in a few different places for the selection – because Dubnyk wasn’t considered the best goaltender available at 14th overall.
Guy Flaming’s draft review for Hockey’s Future is a great resource for anyone looking back at the 2004 draft, and he got a great quote from scout Chris McCarthy on the players the Oilers had hoped to grab with the 14th pick:
“We really wanted (Drew Stafford) but we also thought we might have a shot at (A.J.) Thelen or even (Lauri) Tukonen,” admitted scout Chris McCarthy.
Stafford, a 6’2” winger related to former Oilers trainer Barrie Stafford, was the player that the Oilers coveted, something that was no secret on draft day. He would have been a good selection too; his career took a bit of a downturn this past season, but so far he’s been a quality selection at 13th overall, which is where the Sabres took him (Side point: Stafford’s rumoured to be available and would be a great pick-up for the Oilers). Tukonen and Thelen would have been disastrous picks, but fortunately they went consecutively immediately before Stafford.
The Oilers drafted Dubnyk because they thought him to be the best goaltender in the draft, an opinion that put them out of sync with NHL scouting consensus at the time. Dubnyk was widely thought to be the third best goaltender in the draft. At the time, the title of best goaltender was a toss-up between Al Montoya, who went sixth overall, and Marek Schwarz, who went 17th overall.
Montoya wasn’t available to the Oilers, but it’s easy to see why the scouts loved him. He had two seasons of starting experience at the University of Michigan by the time his draft year rolled around, and he’d been splendid, recording save percentages of 0.911 and 0.917. He was also a gold medal winner at the World Juniors, where he led Team USA to gold, allowing just eight goals in six games – all wins. Montoya was also named to the all-tournament team. He was projected as a future star, but so far his professional career falls far short of his performance as an amateur.
Marek Schwarz, however, was available. Another star of the international junior circuit, Schwarz had done well for the Czech Republic at both the U-18 and U-20 tournaments; at the U-18 he led the tournament in goals against and save percentage and was named best goaltender. His acrobatic style drew inevitable comparisons to Dominik Hasek, and places like Red Line Report (they ranked him 7th overall) sang his praises.
Dubnyk wasn’t chopped liver, but his resume was less impressive for many. He had size (although it’s worth remembering that the NHL hadn’t yet fallen totally in love with big goaltenders in 2004), and he had a solid performance for a poor team in Kamloops. He’d also played well at the U-18 tournament, although perhaps not as spectacularly as Schwarz. He’d also won the 2004 CHL Scholastic Player of the Year award. But the Oilers loved both his ability and his character, and had him ranked as the best goaltender in the draft, and so they took him despite still having a firm belief that Jeff Deslauriers was going to be an NHL starter.
Six years later, while Dubnyk still hasn’t established himself, the Oilers’ selection doesn’t look so bad. Montoya’s an AHL backup, while Schwarz is putting up good numbers in Europe after a disastrous professional career in North America. Of the first-rounders, only Cory Schneider is really still in the conversation, and he’s not clearly ahead of Dubnyk.
It’s not the outcome anyone would have predicted on draft day – another indicator of how unpredictable goaltender projection can be – but this coming season might finally vindicate the Oilers’ goalie scouts from 2004. They went against the consensus, they drafted the guy they liked, and while the road to this point has been a long one, Dubnyk is in a position where strong performance on his part could transform him from the goalie of the future to the goalie of the present.
It won’t necessarily be easy. Ostensible starter Nikolai Khabibulin may or may not be available to start the year and may or may not be healthy, but he has the confidence of Oilers management. Jeff Deslauriers, two years older, hasn’t been able to make that jump but is still in the conversation. Finally, Martin Gerber’s track record means he must be considered as a competitor for the starting job, even if only as a dark horse.
The job is up for grabs, and Dubnyk has as good a shot as anyone.