Wild’s Dumba trying to break through for full-time NHL job

Mathew Dumba, the Wild's first-round draft pick in 2012, played in 13 games with Minnesota last year. He also scored his first NHL goal, but soon found himself back in junior hockey. In 2014-15, Dumba hopes to land in the NHL full time.

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Talk to Matt Dumba for any amount of time and his love for the game of hockey and his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL is very apparent. So is the raw emotion of coming so close yet being told to be patient.

The look on Dumba’s face as he speaks about going back to play junior hockey last year is almost pained, his voice filled with the disappointment of playing junior hockey for a fifth season in 2013-14.

Dumba, the Minnesota Wild’s first-round draft pick in 2012, was there. He played in 13 games with Minnesota last year. He scored his first NHL goal. His dream was being realized.

Then the Wild decided his development would be best served by returning to the Western Hockey League for another season.

"It was really tough," Dumba said this week as he took part in Minnesota’s development camp. "The first couple of weeks sucked. I took it very hard."

Dumba could hardly watch his future team on TV, the team he hopes to break training camp with this season as he turns pro full-time.

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"Everyone’s goal is to be in the NHL and when they tell you that’s not going to happen for the rest of the year, it’s kind of tough to watch that on TV," Dumba said. "But once I settled in in Portland and saw the boys doing well, it was pretty exciting to watch."

Dumba had made his way to Portland where he played out his final junior season with eight goals and 16 assists in 26 games, thriving in the Winterhawks’ offensive system. The talent that made him the No. 7 overall pick in 2012 was on display again.

"I started figuring out it was best for me and my development, and by the end of the year I really saw how much I developed," Dumba said of returning to juniors. "I was really happy where I ended up. Hopefully I can just carry on and keep going."

The move to Portland was a change. Dumba had played 199 games over four seasons with Red Deer in the WHL. His rights were traded while he was still in Minnesota, so he didn’t even give much of a thought to his team. He was focused on staying with the Wild.

He left Minnesota to play in the World Junior Championships and eventually returned to the WHL with Portland.

"I think sometimes for young kids to be exposed to different situations, to different coaches, to different techniques, to different approaches, that can be healthy," said Iowa Wild coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who is helping coach the development camp. "I think Matty’s probably a better, more rounded player today because of that."

Getting over the disappointment wasn’t easy, though. He didn’t truly want to be in Red Deer or Portland.

Dumba wants to be in the NHL so badly, he puts pressure on himself. He knows he needs to "let things come to me."

"I think I’ve got to do a little bit better job of that, just letting things come to me and relax into things rather than push and force little things," Dumba said. "I tend to do that sometimes . . . It’s been a dream since I was little. Now it’s right in front of me, I’m trying to do whatever it takes. But I know there’s a process for me and everything happens for a reason, so I just work hard and just do my job."

The Wild still feel strongly about Dumba, and his play in Portland wasn’t a surprise, especially in a system that fits his strengths as a defensive player willing to join the rush.

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Dumba, still just 19 years old, had 13 games in the NHL. His development was just better suited, considering the situation for he and the team, with another stint in junior hockey.

"For him to get that taste early in the year, I think it was extremely valuable for him to see what it is like to be a pro and to play against NHL players," Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. "He got his feet wet and then went to the World Juniors and went back to junior and played 30-plus minutes a night in all situations. So, for him to be here playing limited minutes and not having a big role down the stretch isn’t good for any young player. But down the road he’ll realize the benefits of it.

"Coming into camp, he’s a determined guy. If you talk to him, he’s coming here to make the team."

And to stay this time.

Dumba sees the potential. Minnesota returns its top-4 defensemen and also has Keith Ballard and restricted free agent Jon Blum.

The Wild have three young defensemen seemingly on the cusp of contributing in the NHL, including Dumba. Christian Folin, 23, played in one NHL game after signing as a college free agent in March. Gustav Olofsson, 19, decided to turn pro after one season of college hockey after being the team’s first-overall pick in the second round of the 2013 draft.

"I just have to compete, compete for those spots," Dumba said. "Be assertive. I just want to be here. That’s what I’m going to do. It doesn’t really matter. I’m friends with those guys, but when it comes down to it, I want that job and I’m going to work for that position, and not let those guys get in the way."

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