The Edmonton Oilers allowed 30.7 shots against per game last season, 19th most in the NHL, however, they only fired 26.7 shots per game at opposing goalies, good for 29th in the league. The Oilers were -4 in shots for/against ratio, and only Minnesota was worse at -4.9.
Many expect the Oilers to better offensively with the additions of Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, but solid goaltending will be the biggest necessity f they intend to compete for a playoff spot.
And that pressure falls on the shoulders of Devan Dubnyk.
Prior to his first appearance on December 27th at the Spengler Cup, Devan Dubnyk hadn’t played a game since shutting out Kazakhstan 8-0 on May 12th at the World Championships. He hadn’t played an organized game of hockey in 229 days, the longest stretch of his life he said, yet Dubnyk played quite well.
Jason Strudwick and I caught up with the 14th overall pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft and talked about the Spengler Cup, practices, headshots in practice and if he’s ready to be the everyday starting goalie for the Oilers.
Gregor: You hadn’t played a game in seven months, yet the rust certainly didn’t show. How did you feel?
Dubnyk: Surprisingly good. I was nervous. I certainly hadn’t been that nervous for a game in a long time. I was just really trying to remember how to prepare for a game and what I do throughout the day, thinking a lot more than I usually do before that first game. I just really tried to concentrate on a few simple things to worry about. It only took about five minutes to get into the game and it came back, which is a nice feeling. Just to be able to go out there and play is a nice feeling going into the season.
Gregor: What about the reflexes and reactions from in tight and around the net, I’m guessing it was hard to emulate that in practice?
Dubnyk: It’s funny because as a goalie you get frustrated sometimes in practice and the drills. It can be tough in that there is not a lot of pressure on the guys or, obviously, the D-men don’t want to be taking one timers in the feet or anything. So a lot of time it’s not like a game, in that guys are getting a lot better opportunities or they have their head up more than a game. After facing so many practices with odd man opportunities and getting used to that, it was almost a relief to have a game situation where all of a sudden guys had to make up their minds quickly. As a goalie, it gives you a little extra time.
Strudwick: You were fortunate enough that you got to play in the Spengler Cup when you were only 20 years old, and that’s where we first met. Talk about the tournament itself. What’s it like being in Davos, was it as special as we remember talking about?
Dubyk: It is. It’s amazing and that’s were I had a chance to meet you and the family when I went over for the first time. Me and my wife now, we had no idea what to expect. We were blown away, just by the feeling there, the family atmosphere, and how Hockey Canada sets up the tournament. As soon as I got the opportunity to go back, there was zero hesitation- not just for the playing time, but for the overall experience of the tournament. Obviously everybody who is over there wants to win, but they do just a fantastic job. There’s always something going on for the families. Everybody’s together, it’s Christmas time, there’s kids running around and you add to that, that Davos is easily one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been in the world. It’s a pretty neat experience.
Strudwick: I don’t remember the name of it, but on the off day many years ago, we had a chance to go down that long sled hill. Explain what it was and did you get a chance to go on it this time?
Dubnyk: (laughing) I must have told that story a hundred times now and I don’t think we have enough time for me to go through the whole story of it. Fortunately, they don’t take the families to that hill anymore, the one that we would have went to. I went with my brother this time and he said he was going tobogganing with the family, and I almost grabbed him by the jacket and said, “Don’t do it… don’t let them talk you into it!”
Strudwick: It’s a long toboggan course, it’s a 5km or something isn’t it?
Dubnyk: Ya, I think it took a good 25-30 minutes to get down. I’ll never forget that. We rode a gondola up; we had about an 80-pound Santa’s sleigh with metal skis on the bottom and not a lot of maneuverability in that thing. There were people falling off left, right, and centre. People getting hurt, but we made it down in one piece. I don’t think anything like that would ever be legal in North America. I was glad to experience it that one time. I didn’t do it this time because I actually had to play some games, so I decided to stay healthy.
Gregor: With the NHL coming to an agreement how much will those three games benefit you? Do you feel better now than before you went to the Spengler Cup?
Dubnyk: A thousand times better, just even mentally. Obviously three games is only three games, but just going over and not knowing what to expect about my play with such a huge layoff it was good. Getting into those three full games gave me a good feeling. I felt like I’m moving around well and reading the play well and I have good patience. Like I was telling you, that first day before the first game I played, going through the day trying to remember how do I do this, how do I prepare, what’s it gonna feel like when the puck drops, what’s warm up gonna be like. All these things that I was thinking before the game because it was such a huge layoff are not going to be factors for me when the season starts. That was huge for me.
Gregor: Will you talk to Ralph Krueger and ask for a legitimate scrimmage, where you could face scrums, rebounds, and situations similar to a real game, rather than a regular practice?
Dubnyk: I’m sure they will be running those situations, not just for me but the players. That’s not just a coaching thing that’s a practicing in general thing. There is never going to be a practice you can have that’s going to have that same intensity; the blocking of the shots, the hitting, and the angling off by the D-men or the scrambles in front. It doesn’t matter where you go; you’re just not going to be able to find the same thing in practice. That’s why you always say as a goalie, I or any player, but especially as a goalie, you just have to play games to get experience. I’m sure the coaches will be running a lot of scrimmages and a lot of drill-type thing. We’ll do the best we can until we start playing.
Strudwick: Can you speak a little bit to the challenge, mentally, of going to work out or going to skate when you don’t know an end date? In the summer you know you have to be ready around September 15th. This time there was no start date. How did you deal with with that and what have you done to try to stay level-headed?
Dubnyk: It’s been difficult, certainly more difficult than I ever would have expected. I have had a tough time finding ice. I’ve been travelling around everywhere just to try to get out on the ice. It’s really tough, especially when you don’t know what day you’re starting. Sometimes if you have a bad day on the ice or you’ve got a little bug and you’re not feeling great during the summer or you know you have a start date, it’s easy just to power through that and look forward to what day you’ve got to be ready for. Whether it is the game or training camp or whatever, but sometimes it’s tough to overcome that if you just don’t feel like going to the rink. It’s a lot easier to take it off and say, “oh maybe not today, maybe I’ll just take it easy today,” when you don’t really know when you’re going to be playing, then after a while it just starts to wear on you. The Spengler Cup experience, in that regard, was really huge for me.
Gregor: Of all the teammates you’ve had in Edmonton, who was the worst at hitting you in the head in practice?
Dubnyk: That’s got to be one of the 21 and unders I think. (laughing) Pick one!
Gregor: Oh Hall and Eberle. They like to go roof quite a bit?
Dubnyk: Ya, well Ebs can go roof all he wants I don’t even feel that thing when it hits me in the face, even when he is shooting from five feet out. (laughs)
Gregor: Hall, on the other hand, has a little more velocity behind his shot?
Dubnyk: Ya, that is one I like to get out of the way of when it’s coming.
Gregor: What about gaining confidence? Struds suggested he was used as a guy who would build a goalie’s confidence in practice.
Dubnyk: That’s not true, I’m not just pumping Struddy’s tires, but I never had an easy time with Struds. He’s got a powerful shot, and his the release… you could just never quite get it. Sometimes the D-men are dangerous and I never had an easy time with Struds. I’m not just saying that.
Gregor: Yes, it’s hard to read a guy where he doesn’t even know where he’s shooting. Is that what you’re suggesting?
Dubnyk: Oohhhhh I wasn’t gonna say it, but…. (laughing)…yep.
Strudwick: You love the shots where a guy looks like he’s going top shelf, fans on it and it goes underneath your glove and the guy celebrates…
Dubnyk: Oh and when he celebrates, that’s my favourite… and they think, ‘Oh what a shot!’ They’ll never admit that they fanned on it. It is even worse on breakaways; the missed five-hole is probably the most frustrating thing in the world.
Strudwick: Those are the ones I used to love! (laughs). A lot of players have gone over to Europe, a lot of skaters, but there have been very few North American-born goalies heading over there. Has it been that tough for guys to get opportunities to get over there?
Dubnyk: Ya. I’ve been trying myself; I’m sure just about everybody’s been trying. It’s just a difference situation I think. Those import cards are extremely important to those teams. Not just that, but if you have a goalie, or your starting goalie over there and he leaves, you’re either left with no goalie or you’re left with someone that’s bitter because he’s been sitting on the bench for the whole season. Then you’re stuck or you’ve put yourself into a bad position, going into the playoff push and the playoffs, which is the most important part of the season. I think that’s why you’ve seen it’s so difficult, not just for North American goalies but even some European goalies aren’t finding it too easy to go over there.
Gregor: Have any of your team mates ever thrown the pads on in practice? If so, who was the best goalie?
Dubnyk: Well I haven’t seen anybody in Edmonton put the pads on. I saw a couple guys in Phoenix last month put the pads on. I won’t mention any names; I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus! There are some guys that go in there and are great and are able to move. Then there are some guys who are great athletes, that you think would be good at playing goal, but they are that are horrendous.
The only thing that’s nice is when guys put on the gear and they get out there, and they get up and down once or twice and they’re absolutely gassed and they’re out of breath. You’re like, ‘finally a little bit of respect for the goalies, we’re not all out of shape.’ Forwards and D-men think it’s easy, but it’s not that easy.
Strudwick: Are you a guy that’s really particular about your helmet? Do you like it when guys walk in and just throw your helmet on, does that bother you?
Dubnyk: No, not at all. I’ve never been really superstitious on touching my equipment. I wouldn’t want people messing around with the straps or how tight things are if it was the day of the game. In between, I really don’t mind. It’s kind of one of those things I try to avoid getting uptight about it. There are enough things to stress you out during the season; you don’t want to start worrying about that stuff.
Gregor: What are your expectations for this season? Do you say, “I know I’m a number one goalie if given the chance this year?”
Dubnyk: Oh you save the easy question for last. How good could I be… hmmm(laughs). After last season, I feel at the end of the season it was exciting to get the chance to play and play well. But I think the most exciting part of it was just the feeling that I had, my personal confidence and just feeling that, ‘hey I’m here and regardless if some person thinks that I can be a starter or if someone else doesn’t, I myself believe that I can be a starting goalie and a real good one in this league.’ This is just the start of it for me, hopefully, and I just want to continue to move up and really become an elite goalie someday.
When I say someday, hopefully, someday is this year.
This is an extremely important season for Dubnyk, and likely more important for him than any of the young forwards of D-men. If Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, J.Schultz or Yakupov struggle, they will have an opportunity to bounce back next season. Dubnyk needs to prove this season that he can be a starter.
He played very well at the Spengler Cup, and I know it is only three games, but he is more confident now than at any other point in his NHL career.
I expect him to have a solid campaign for the Oilers. Do you?