ST. PAUL, Minn. — Mathew Dumba is hoping to switch teams midseason and join the Minnesota Wild. He just never thought he’d be doing so quite like he did Wednesday night.
Dumba, the 18-year-old participating in his first NHL training camp, was Minnesota’s first overall draft pick last summer, taken with the No. 7 pick. He’s spent this season with his junior team, Red Deer, in the Western Hockey League while the NHL and Wild have been going through the lockout. Dumba was hoping to get the chance to jump from Red Deer to the Wild this season. He didn’t know his switching of teams was going to be Wild to Wild.
Midway through Minnesota’s intrasquad Red vs. White scrimmage in front of over 13,000 fans at the Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday night, Dumba switched teams to compensate for the loss of veteran defenseman Tom Gilbert.
Dumba handled the transition as well as he’s done the leap from junior hockey. The 6-foot, 185-pound defenseman was credited with an assist on the first goal of the scrimmage. Known as a big hitter with a big shot, he wound up for a shot from the point which was trickled free from Minnesota’s starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom and was tipped home by Nick Palmeiri.
“It’s crazy, just the thought of being on the ice with those guys,” Dumba said of playing with NHLers in Wednesday’s scrimmage, which featured two teams mixed from the Wild’s training camp roster and Minnesota’s minor-league team, the Houston Aeros. “The last five years I’ve idolized those guys and watched them play in the NHL. And being on the same ice surface with them and battling and competing with them is something special and now I’m just trying to take it all in.”
He might just be doing more than that. Dumba, expected at the start to return to his junior team after the training camp ends this week, has been turning heads.
“He’s confident; you’ve got to like that,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said of Dumba’s performance Wednesday. “He shows a lot of poise with the puck and wants to be in those situations. He wants the puck. Physically, battle-wise, he’s strong. His skating ability is excellent. Certainly there’s some things and aspects of his game that we’ll have to work on, but I believe, in time, that we can definitely help him with those things.”
One advantage Dumba might have right now is he’s played all season, while many of the Wild’s skaters were forced to keep in shape on their own, some played in Europe, while others played with Houston. But Dumba has 69 games under his belt already this season, having scored 20 goals and passing out 37 assists for Red Deer.
But even with a strong showing early in camp, Dumba knows nothing is guaranteed for him at the NHL level this season. He knows he could be returning to Red Deer soon.
“I’m kind of on the bottom of the totem pole right now and just trying to work my up,” Dumba said, adding that he doesn’t think he’ll be staying with the Wild. “I think I’ve made a good start for myself by just working hard and battling and competing.”
At the very least, he’s hoping he can stay around for the maximum five games before returning. Juniors can play five games without burning a year of eligibility or needing to sign a pro contract. Yeo wasn’t ruling anything out yet for Dumba, but said he wants to get to his regular roster as soon as possible, with moves possibly coming on Thursday.
“We have to go back right now and make some decisions,” Yeo said. “As quickly as possible I’d like to get down to our group. He’s one of those guys, for sure.”
Yeo acknowledged there are things going against Dumba, since he can be returned to his junior team.
“We’ve seen him play and every time we watch him, we get a little more confident, for sure,” Yeo said. “But there’s another level coming. Saturday’s going to be another level and two weeks after that it’s going to be another level. We have to consider the fact that he’s been playing all year and has a big advantage there. The other things that young kids, an 18-year-old who still has junior eligibility, has going against him is just contract status and more organizational decisions and what’s best for the kid, and also how it’s going to affect his development. So it’s not like for you to put them on the team they clearly have to earn it.”
How close he is to earning it will be discovered soon.
Gilbert injured in scrimmage: Dumba had to make the switch Wednesday night because Gilbert suffered a groin injury early in the scrimmage. Gilbert, a top-four defenseman for the Wild, could have kept playing, according to Yeo, but he remained out for precautionary reasons.
“It was nothing serious,” Yeo said. “It was all precautionary, just making sure that he’ll be ready to go come Saturday night. We just didn’t want to put him back out there. He could have. If this was the regular season then he would have. But at this point, again, just making sure we don’t put him out there in a situation where he could hurt himself further.”
Game atmosphere: The Wild used Wednesday night’s scrimmage as a dry-run for Saturday’s season-opener against the Colorado Avalanche. Minnesota played three 20-minute periods and had penalties called by on-ice officials. The scrimmage also included natural TV timeouts with the game broadcast on Fox Sports North.
“It helps a lot,” forward Zach Parise said. “You get into your routine of a night game. You get in a routine of your pregame nap and things that fans don’t see but you have to get used to doing. For us to do that, and then come to a building with fans in it, it makes a big difference.”
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon had two goals and an assists. Palmieri, Jake Dowell, Steven Kampfer and Pierre-Marc Bouchard also scored. The Wild ended the game with a shootout.