DEVAN DUBNYK: READY FOR PRIMETIME?

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.

FITTING IN

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."

A TANDEM

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.

  • I didn’t think I could like Dubnyk anymore than I already do, but there you go.

    Like you said Robin, I’m still not sold that he’s ready to be a number one, let alone the goalie of the future for the franchise, but his development looks to be on a solid trajectory. Can’t wait to see how good this kid can be as he starts entering his prime.
    The only thing I’m worried about is management putting pressure on the coaching staff to keep rolling Khabi as the number one next year, regardless of what happens in camp. I’m actually not sure if that’s even a legitimate possibility, but would anyone be surprised?

  • Ssseth

    Great article Reuben. Nice scoop and I love how Dubnyk opened up like that. He’s got to be one of the most open and communicable Goalies I’ve seen in a long time, especially around these parts.

  • Ssseth

    Dubie comes across as a straightforward man and seems pretty transparent. Diarrhea in a pool notwithstanding, it goes to show the fans really have a narrow perspective on player value and team success. There are dressing room and on-ice dynamics we have no measure of. Very insightful read.

  • Big Perm

    Get katz to eat Khabby’s contract next year, then sign Bunz from the Tigers to be backup.

    Bunz and Dubey can battle it out like a couple of good Canadian kids all season long.

      • Big Perm

        I could see management eating Khabby’s contract sometime next season, healthy, caged, or injured.

        Playoff push or not, may be better to get hopefully similar – or possibly better results out of Olivier Roy or Tyler Bunz.

        Probably no more Gerber, so there would be two depth spots open. Unless we sneakily sign Viktor Fasth of the Swedish Elite league.

        Just mentioned Bunz because he’s played great this season.

        • a lg dubl dubl

          The only way i see the Oilers buy out or bury NK in the minors is if he gets sent to jail other than that he’ll be back next season, and like DD said Khabby has been a good tutor for him this season so in some ways he hasnt been a total failer for the team.

          You are right sir, Bunz has been pretty good this season for the tigers but IMO just not ready for primetime yet, in 2 yrs probably.

          Id hate to see Gerber go somewhere else next season in the few games he has played for the big club he was pretty stellar, but with NKs overrated contract he has no chance of making the Oilers and deseves a better shot somewhere else as a back-up(Ottawa?)

          Im not a huge fan of Khabby but Id like to see him have a bounce back yr next season and push Dubby for the 50-60 games I think Dubnyk should play next yr, but thats just me.

          PLAYOFFS IN 11-12!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • bumboclate

    I think the oilers are doing it right. Let Dubnyk battle for the top position. But on another note Craig Button has Adam Larsson ranks #4 as of april 8!!!

  • Dwight K. Shrute

    RB,

    Fans on here keep talking about eating contracts and sending vets like Khabibulin to the minors. I know with Souray it was a different situation, and I know other teams have also done it, but do you think burying a guy like Khabibulin is a logical solution? I was just wondering if this would hurt the team in the future if they were trying to sign an older, character guy to help them in the playoffs (if that ever comes).

    • Sending Khabibulin to the minors makes no sense and it does send the wrong message.

      Yes, he’s overpaid. Yes, he screwed up with the DUI in Arizona. Yes, his skills are on the slide.

      All that is plain to see, but he’s a good teammate and he is a good pro and a mentor to Dubnyk. I’ve seen that, I’m not just basing it on what Devan said. I watch them interact.

      The course that makes sense, assuming Dubnyk continues to improve, is to reverse the roles and let Khabibulin slide into the slot as a back-up who plays 25-35 games next season. He’s not going to hinder the deveopment of younger goalies in the system by playing out the final two years of his contract.

  • Big Perm

    Is it possible to pay a player to retire and give them a job that will pay them out over the length of their playing contract or further if necessary . Would that eliminate the cap hit for subsequent season (s) ? Example : offer Khabby a 2-5 years as a goalie coach paying him slighly more than the two years he has left on his playing contract .

  • striatic

    RB has it.

    Gerber and Deslauriers are likely gone, so if you buy out of bury Khabibulin you have to bring up .. who? Bunz? Pitton?

    Dubnyk has now had a couple good years with limited starts. We’ve yet to see how he performs over a long period as #1 G. You want to keep the competition level up, which I don’t think happens without having Khabibulin around to compete against.

    Like a lot of people, I think Khabibulin is done. We could be very wrong though, and he might have another decent year left in him. Even if he doesn’t, the potential of Khabibulin bouncing back should keep Dubnyk focused on winning the #1 slot outright.

    • Tom Renney has been careful to make sure Dubnyk doesn’t just assume he’s going to take over as the starter because he’s younger etc. I know Devan is smart enough to understand that so I’m not sure it’s necessary in this case, but I get why he’s doing it.

      Devan can still learn from Khabibulin despite his declining skills and, like I said, the relationship appears to be very positive. Of course, most players aren’t going to come out and say, “I really don’t like this guy but he’s a teammate so I’ll shut it and say the right things,” but you can get a read based on watching and what’s said off-the-record or in casual conversation.

      Dubnyk has more to learn and Khabibulin, putting aside his salary, looks to me like he’s the right guy to take him to school.

      • striatic

        That’s smart development, though I hope Dubnyk knows that he *can* take over as starter if he continues to outplay Khabibulin.

        But so long as Khabibulin isn’t holding up anybody’s development [and he currently isn’t], and he continues to be a good influence working in tandem with Dubnyk’s development, there’s absolutely no reason to bury the guy.

        Maybe one of Bunz or Pitton will earn some big league games the season after next and sending Khabibulin to the minors to play out the last year of his contract might make sense .. but that’s a big “maybe”.

  • @madjam

    Doesn’t matter what you trying doing, Khabbi’s contract will count towards the cap because he was over 35 when he signed.

    Personally, I have no problem over-paying our “back-up” goalie for the the next two seasons. Team cap hit won’t be an issue while Hall & co. Are in their EL contracts and it sounds like Khabbi’s has taken a bit of a mentoring role and from Robin’s article above, it seems like he’s being very supportive and helpful to the younger players, especially Dubey.

  • First. Bulins contract. Like Horcoffs its a non starter. Its a bad contract. If Bulin were making 2 million or less it wouldn’t be an issue. Secondly. DUI. He’ll have his day in court. Until then he is as innocent as a lamb. Thirdly. Dubnyk should get 50 games next season.If not I would question Renny’s plan. Lastly. We all have had a mentor at some point in our lives. Some one we can look to for guidance and direction. Dosen’t matter what job you do or what level of what level of education you have there is always someone there who you look up to show you the ropes. There is no substitute for experience. Ron Low? Anyone remember him? And what he did for the development of Moog and Fuhr.Experience counts.

  • Kodiak

    Agree on all points Robin. As long as Khabbi is on board with helping Dubnyk succeed then its a great situation. And Dubnyk hasn’t proven yet he can handle a big work load. I would be disappointed if Khabbi were to get more starts than Dubnyk next season, even if he’s playing well, just because I think it’s time we find out what Dubnyk has in terms of consistency. Even a 46/36 split would seem to make sense.

    • You might be right, but unless Dubnyk falters, Khabibulin will be bouncing back in a lot fewer games. Even if Khabibulin has something left, and I suspect he does, Dubnyk should get the heavier workload — something in the 45-50-game range.

  • Excellent article. In Khabbys first year, he played like dynamite for 20 straight games and got injured. In year 2, he played lights out for 20 straight games and then went down the tank. Do we see a pattern? Old man can’t play a lot of games, but still has some game left. Its a good relationship, old mentor and young learner. Keep it going, at least for one more year, but give Doobie the workload.
    I agree with you 100% Rubin.

  • RB,

    for whatever reason i’ve always had the sense that Roli was distinctly not like Khabby in terms of being a good mentor to a younger guy coming up. More concerned about not be supplanted – fair enough, and perhaps moreso for him b/c he’s had to scratch and claw his way for respect and playing time going back to Buffalo days. Is that acurate?

    • Dwayne appears more outwardly competitive than Khabibulin and his displays of intensity can be interpreted as not being a good mentor. He’s a different cat than Nikolai and it might be because of exactly what you mentioned.

      That said, I didn’t see or hear of any problems between Roloson and the other goaltenders here.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    “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.”” My Opinion of Habby as a mentor goes way up with this statement it shows me that he does not take himself to seriously but at the same time knows his best years are gone. He could surprize us yet if we get hot in his last contract year and Dubnyk is #1 his been there done that in playoffs will matter.