If you were underwhelmed by the Coyotes’ signing of backup free-agent goalie Devan Dubnyk last week, the former Oiler, Predator and Canadien would probably understand.
Last season was literally worse than Dubnyk’s darkest dreams.
"I don’t think there are really words to characterize it," he said. "The best way I can put it is if you had asked me what the worst possible outcome to a season would be at the start of last season, I wouldn’t have made up a story that was half that bad."
Coming off a promising lockout season in which he posted career-bests in goals against average (2.57) and save percentage (.921), Dubynk was given the keys to Edmonton’s kingdom the next season and got off to a brutal start. He allowed 19 goals on 111 shots in his first four starts — all losses.
"With the excitement everyone had at the beginning of the season and the expectations from everybody in Edmonton, it just kind of snowballed from there, and I wasn’t really able to string anything together and get back on track," he said.
With the Oilers headed toward an eighth straight playoff-less season, Dubnyk was dealt to Nashville in January and allowed nine goals in just two games there before being assigned to the minors and later traded to Montreal.
So what did the Coyotes see that convinced them Dubnyk could be a suitable replacement for departing free agent Thomas Greiss and a competent understudy to Mike Smith?
Coyotes assistant to the general manager and goalie coach Sean Burke has built such a reputation for reclamation projects with Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith that fans have affectionately started calling him the goalie whisperer. It was Burke who GM Don Maloney charged with finding a backup this offseason.
Burke watched tape, talked to others who had worked with Dubnyk and relied on his own extensive experience watching Dubnyk play.
"I really like the way he plays. He has a good demeanor in the net and good raw ability. He’s obviously got the skill-set because the guy is a former first-rounder," Burke said of Dubnyk, who was the Oilers’ first-round pick (14th overall) in 2004. "The next side of a goalie’s development is the mental side of the game and learning how to be consistent every night."
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Burke said similar things about Bryzgalov and Smith, who also possess good size, albeit not Dubnyk’s 6-foot-6 frame.
"If you look at our history, we’ve had good luck helping that bigger goalie find his game," Maloney said.
Besides, nobody that has worked with Dubnyk, 28, has spotted significant technical issues. And some of Dubnyk’s issues were beyond his control.
"I think it was a combination of things because the team struggled, too," said former Oilers assistant GM Rick Olczyk, who took the same post with Carolina this summer. "I think it ate at him mentally, so it was more between the ears than anything else."
"He’s always been a very personable, very approachable guy with good tools and a smile on his face all the time. He’s very competitive in a good way."
If given a choice between a bigger goalie and a smaller one, Burke admits he’ll take the bigger one. Burke is 6-4. He has inherent knowledge of the challenges and advantages height brings. But he also thinks that storyline is overplayed.
"I’m looking for a guy who can stop the puck and keep it out of the net," he said, laughing. "The reality of the league is that it’s filled with bigger goalies. The majority of them are big guys now, so chances are, you’re going to be working with one."
"With Devan, I’m just excited because I’m getting a really good player who has room to improve."
I’m young enough where I don’t want to accept the backup role and sit back, but it will be a good chance to work with Burkie and learn from him. It will be a good opportunity to get a lot of reps in practice and start to feel good about my game again.
In 179 career NHL games, Dubnyk has a 2.90 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. There are some tweaks to make in Dubnyk’s game, Burke said, but the majority of them have nothing to do with physical ability.
"You can work on physical stuff, but mentally, how you feel when you step on the ice is really important, and a lot of that will come through conversations and watching the way Smitty prepares," Burke said.
Like Bryzgalov and Smith and a hundred goalies before them, Dubnyk admits that his confidence was sagging last season. In that respect, he’s embracing the idea of being a backup who probably won’t play a whole lot behind a workhorse like Smith.
"I’m young enough where I don’t want to accept the backup role and sit back, but it will be a good chance to work with Burkie and learn from him," Dubnyk said. "It will be a good opportunity to get a lot of reps in practice and start to feel good about my game again."
Burke and Maloney believe training camp and the preseason provide enough ice time for Dubnyk to get his head right before he has to take on 15-20 regular-season starts, provided he stays in shape in the offseason.
"The thing that excites me is he’s done it before," Maloney said. "The hope is that he plays well and becomes a valuable asset, whether it’s to re-sign him or do something else with him."