Every year, the Professional Hockey Writers Association gets together in each region and votes on thirty nominees.
One comes from each team, voted on by the PHWA members in that NHL franchise’s area. The thirty players are then announced as the formal nominees for the Masterton Trophy — awarded to the player that season who showed the most perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication over the year.
Last season, Dominic Moore took home the award, following his return to the NHL after taking time off to spend with his terminally ill wife. The season before that, it went to Josh Harding — who recorded a shutout in his first game of the year following his MS diagnosis, then returned from a 33-game absence to start in five playoff contests.
Not every nominee deals with illness or heartbreak. Some — like Scott Darling, the 2015 Masterton nominee for the Chicago Blackhawks — simply displayed immense inner strength to achieve the level of success they have. Others, like Shane Doan of the Arizona Coyotes and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, simply show a lack of quit as the years go by. The perserverance shown by many of the nominees isn’t always tangible or easy to lay out in a clear and concise manner.
For Devan Dubnyk — the 2015 Masterton nominee of the Minnesota Wild — though, it’s pretty easy to see why he was given the nod.
In professional sports, it’s hard to overcome a fall from grace. All it takes is one season — especially for goaltenders or young players, both of which apply to the 28-year-old Dubnyk — for a team to lose its faith; if a player struggles too long to bounce back from his crummy numbers, it’s usually all over.
That seemed like the case for Dubnyk at the midway point in the 2013-2014 season. After five years as the starting netminder for the Edmonton Oilers, Dubnyk had finally hit a period of regression. It couldn’t all be blamed on the poor defense in front of him — fans are watching starter Ben Scrivens experience some struggles of his own in net this year — but the combination of a bad season and some not-so-stellar numbers for the 6 foot 6 netminder saw the team deal him to the Nashville Predators.
It came out at one point that Dubnyk had been against leaving Edmonton at the time. He and his wife had a new baby, and the season was already hard enough — so although the blame doesn’t solely lie with the Oilers brass for moving the goalie anyway, his poor showing upon arriving in Nashville was hardly unexpected. He was practically stapled to the bench before getting moved to the Montreal Canadiens, who didn’t wait even a game before reassigning him to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL. He spent the remainder of that spring living in a hotel in Hamilton, Ontario; by the time he hit free agency, the former first round pick was willing to take a one year, $800,000 deal with the Arizona Coyotes just to keep playing.
Enter Sean Burke, who isn’t called the goalie whisperer for nothing.
Dubnyk spent the first half of the 2014-2015 season in Glendale, Arizona, where he and Coyotes goaltending consultant Sean Burke worked to piece him back together. In Nashville, the stylized approach with which Dubnyk had approached minding net in Edmonton was quickly shut down — and Dubnyk, unwilling to change his style for a coach other than Frederic Chabot, saw his game quickly fall apart. Burke worked to have Dubnyk meet him in the middle, incorporating the goaltending style he had developed in Edmonton with one that focused primarily on maintaining good net positioning. Burke and Dubnyk worked on shifting the backup away from his aggressive, agile style of play to a more composed, tracking-first style. Rather than attacking the shots, Burke encouraged Dubnyk to have faith in his own good positioning.
Having someone who was willing to work with him helped, but Dubnyk still knew that the Coyotes were married to starter Mike Smith for another handful of years — so when he was dealt to the Minnesota Wild in January, it wasn’t a total shock.
Once arriving in St. Paul, though, Dubnyk was determined to stick — and put up numbers that no one else in the league (save for Carey Price) could come close to touching. He made twenty straight starts, then thirty … and pulled the Wild from the bottom of the standings to a clear playoff spot.
It’s one thing to be a good netminder (which Dubnyk was for most of his career in Edmonton) and enter the Vezina conversation after years in the league, but it’s quite another to enter the conversation after losing your NHL job altogether. Perseverance means something a little different to every person out there, but it’s hard to argue — if anyone knows perseverance, it’s Devan Dubnyk.