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Devan Dubnyk: From AHL to the State of Hockey’s Hero

Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk took the stage at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to accept the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” It was the cherry on top of a remarkable season for the 29-year-old who just a few days later signed a six-year, $25 million extension.

One year prior, there were no trophies, celebrations or long-term deals, just a lot of questions and soul searching.

Dubnyk’s 2013-14 season ended not in the NHL, but with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. The Montreal Canadiens acquired Dubnyk from the Nashville Predators for future considerations late in the season. It was the second time the goaltender was traded that season.

“When you’re in Hamilton and you’re back on the bus, rotating three guys (in net), it just…it’s tough to see past that,” Dubnyk said.

After being a mainstay in the Oilers’ crease since 2010, Edmonton shipped Dubnyk off to Nashville after an abysmal 32-game stretch to begin the 2013-14 campaign. Dubnyk lasted only two games with the Predators, allowing nine goals in what turned out to be his final NHL games of the season.

The trade and subsequent demotion forced him to reevaluate his game.

“I still had a lot of belief in myself that I was capable of playing,” Dubnyk said. “It didn’t matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t get my head around how I was where I was in such a short period of time.”

The world of professional sports moves so rapidly. Oftentimes a single season can make the difference in whether a career flourishes or ends. Despite a few quality seasons with the Oilers, one dreadful one was enough to wipe all of that away, except in Dubnyk’s mind. He did not give up on himself.

“You don’t doubt your ability to play, but you understand that it’s a business and sometimes windows are small and it’s scary,” Dubnyk said. “You realize how quickly it can be taken away from you.”

Off the ice, Dubnyk had to remind himself what was truly important.

“When I was in that situation, it just seemed like rock bottom and didn’t seem like anything was going right or was going to go right,” Dubnyk said. “Just take a breath and look around and realize how blessed you are with a beautiful wife, an incredible son, and family and friends that just stay by you no matter what.

“It just allows you to take a breath and go play hockey again.”

That’s exactly what he did.

Once the season ended, Dubnyk took advantage of a long summer to focus on clearing his mind and fixing the holes in his game.

“I think the best thing was to get a break from the season and get that chance in the summer to kind of reflect on everything that had happened and why it had happened,” Dubnyk said. “You realize how lucky you are to have these people in your life that are there for you no matter what happens of what you’re doing.”

In spite of the way his prior season ended, Dubnyk did not have to wait long to find his new team for the 2014-15 season. The Arizona Coyotes signed Dubnyk to a one-year, $800,000 on the first day of free agency, bringing him to the desert to backup starter Mike Smith.

He came into the season with a new attitude and plenty of lessons learned from the year prior.

“Seeing (what happened that season) allowed me to approach this year and just really be grateful for every chance I got to go to the rink, every time I got a chance to play a game — just really enjoying my 60 minutes, because I saw first-hand how quickly it can be taken away from you and it’s a scary thing,” Dubnyk said.

The Coyotes welcomed him with open arms.

“It was like I’d been there the whole time,” Dubnyk said. “Everybody was happy to have me there and excited to have me there. And when you go into a situation like that, it allows you to just go play.”

In 19 games (16 starts) donning a Coyotes sweater, Dubnyk went 9-5-2 with a .916 save percentage. Many Coyotes fans were clamoring for him to take over the starting job, considering the team’s poor overall record and Smith’s struggles.

However, albeit for completely different reasons, Dubnyk was on the move yet again. Arizona traded Dubnyk to the Wild in January for a third-round draft pick. The Saskatchewan native had rediscovered his game in the desert, but the best was yet to come.

The Coyotes moved toward a full rebuild and had little need for a veteran backup, while Minnesota was fledgling in the wild card race and needed a boost. It turned out the acquisition of Dubnyk was akin to strapping a rocket to the back of the Wild.

Dubnyk earned a shutout in his first game with his new team and went 27-9-2 (.936 save percentage) overall in Minnesota, propping the Wild up from mediocrity to a playoff team that finished the regular season two points behind the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild defeated the favored St. Louis Blues in six games in round one, before getting swept by the Blackhawks in round two.

All in all, it was a highly successful season for a player who has not forgotten those who have helped him along the way.

“I always think back to the Coyotes organization. Right from the start, just the confidence they put in me after last year, which is exactly what I needed. Right from management down to (head coach Dave Tippett).”

Dubnyk added: “I’ll always be grateful for them for giving me that opportunity.”

He made the most of the opportunity and achieved greatness, for one season at least, and was rewarded for it — not only with a new contract, but a trophy as well. He can forever say he’s an NHL award-winner.

Dubnyk called it “A top off to a pretty fun ride for myself and my family.”

A fun ride, indeed.

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