There’s not much question Devan Dubnyk took immense strides toward proving himself capable of being an NHL starter with the Edmonton Oilers this season. Is he all the way there yet? No. Does he warrant a longer look? Absolutely.
While not too many fans would disagree with that assessment, given that Dubnyk has posted far better numbers this season — he is 12-13-8 with two shutouts, a 2.71 goals-against average and a .916 saves percentage in 35 games compared to 4-10-2, a 3.57 GAA and .889 saves percentage in 19 games in 2009-10 — most would like a longer look before handing him the keys to the crease.
And there are many fans on the outside looking in who feel strongly enough about Dubnyk that they would prefer GM Steve Tambellini find a way to get 37-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin gone, or at least out of the way, so their man can take over the bulk of the workload in 2011-12.
I sat down with the 24-year-old puck stopper in the Oilers dressing room this week and talked to him at length — not only about his obvious progression during his second NHL season, but about his working relationship with Khabibulin.
Dubnyk looked less-than-comfortable at many times last season when sharing the crease with Jeff Deslauriers after Khabibulin went down with a bad back, but there was no such discomfort — or clutter in the crease — this season.
With a new two-year contract worth $1.6 million signed and Deslauriers dispatched to Oklahoma City, Dubnyk spent less time trying to fit in and more time concentrating on stopping pucks.
"All you need to worry about is playing hockey," Dubnyk said. "Coming up, it was tough. At the same time, that’s something just about every goalie coming up in an organization has to deal with.
"There’s always going to be prospects and goalies you have to battle with and that was part of it. Certainly, once it came down to two of us this year, the feeling changes and you can kind of just shift and really just concentrate on hockey.
"As much as you try to concentrate just on what you’re doing, when there is another guy, you’re always kind of watching what he’s doing, too, comparing and wondering what the situation is going to be. It’s been nice to just buckle down and worry only about how I’m playing."
Players often talk about confidence, and despite playing behind a group of defenseman that was often over-matched and overwhelmed, Dubnyk gained plenty of it as this season went along.
"It’s been good," Dubnyk said. "Coming into the year, I really wanted not to have that stage where, you know, there was a couple of bad games, then a couple of good games. I didn’t want that this year.
"I got the opportunity to play quite a few games last year and get through that stage. The main focus for me this year was to come in and be a good back-up. I concentrated on that from the start.
"I wasn’t sure at all how many games I was going to get in. At the start, it didn’t look like many. Now, it’s more than I expected. I feel better every time I go on the ice. It’s an exciting feeling to go out there every night and feel like I can give the guys a chance to win."
A STELLAR FINISH
Dubnyk pulled away from the inconsistent Deslauriers with some outstanding work in his final handful of appearances last season, and he has done some of his best work in the late stages of this campaign, particularly in a 4-1 and 2-0 wins against the Vancouver Canucks.
"When you sit back and think how you really wanted to be here your whole life, it’s exciting when you feel like you belong," Dubnyk said. "It’s what you hope for."
A year ago, people were talking about how Dubnyk has overtaken Deslauriers in the pecking order. The Oilers, obviously, saw it the same way, moving him ahead on the depth chart this summer.
With the season finale Sunday in Colorado, people are saying much the same things as it relates to Khabibulin, although he isn’t going anywhere with two years remaining on a deal that pays him $3.75 million a season.
"It’s been great this year," Dubnyk says of playing behind Khabibulin. "I always try to watch other goalies, but Nikolai has played a lot of games and seen a lot of situations. He knows how to handle them.
"I mean, I can’t really think of a situation he hasn’t been through or doesn’t know how to handle. He’s prepared for every game the same, regardless, all year.
"It doesn’t matter what the score is, if we’re up by five or down by five, he plays the same way. He keeps battling. He’s very level-headed and that’s something I’ve tried to pick up on. He’s been around for awhile for a reason."
With his off-ice issues, a DUI, bad numbers in the crease and a bloated contract, Khabibulin has been about as popular with fans as diarrhea at a pool party. He’s had a tough go of it.
That said, Khabibulin and Dubnyk have developed a relationship through difficult times. Khabibulin came off the ice the other day and sat down in his spot beside Dubnyk while we were talking. He quickly peeled off his equipment and, smiled, "I’ll move over here so you can tell the truth now."
"We’ve developed a good relationship over the year," Dubnyk said. "It’s important to be partners and to stick together. There’s only two of us in the room and we both know what it’s like to play the position.
"Whether it’s discussing things for venting or just bouncing stuff off each other, I’ve tried to be there for him and he’s certainly been there for me, so he’s been awesome that way."
The relationship between the starter and his back-up is as important as it gets on a team, especially on a team that finishes 30th in back-to-back seasons as the Oilers have.
Obviously, Dubnyk is looking to supplant Khabibulin as the starter. It goes without saying he wants his job. There’s always competition at the position. That said, if the stoppers aren’t in it together, if they aren’t supportive of each other, the relationship can break down fast.
"He’s been nothing but supportive," Dubnyk said. "He’s happy for me when I play well and, obviously, it’s exciting for me to watch him.
"I can think way back to when I was younger and was watching him, so it’s exciting to kind of be there to be here with him. Really, he’s been just awesome this year. He’s genuinely happy for me when I play well. I’m looking forward to continuing on with him."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.