It was one year ago today — January 14, 2015 — that the Minnesota Wild sent a third round pick to the Arizona Coyotes to acquire goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
Following that trade, Dubnyk piloted the Wild to an incredible late-season run that saw them make the playoffs, while he earned Vezina finalist honors and a six-year, $4.3 million contract extension.
All of this would have seemed absurd on January 13, 2015.
Dubnyk played himself out of the NHL during the 2013-14 season. After 32 games with Edmonton, posting an .892 save percentage, they called Nashville and swapped him for a 32-year-old Matt Hendricks. Nashville couldn’t stabilize their net with Pekka Rinne out for a huge portion of the season and hoped the Edmonton starter was the answer.
After the trade, Nashville gave Dubnyk just two games, over which he posted an .850 save percentage and allowed nine goals. They waived him. He passed through waivers unclaimed.
The following day, the Montreal Canadiens acquired Dubnyk for future considerations. They didn’t claim him off waivers because not only did they get him for nothing, they got Nashville to retain 50% of his salary. That’s after Edmonton had already retained 50% of his salary in the Hendricks trade.
He never played a game for the Canadiens. He was sent to the AHL where he put up an .894 save percentage over eight games with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
In the summer of 2014, he got a job backing up Arizona’s Mike Smith. It was a one-year deal worth $800,000, a significant pay cut from the $3.25 million he made the season before.
In Arizona he didn’t get a ton of work, but maybe more than expected. Mike Smith struggled through the start of the season. Dubnyk was fine, and that was enough.
On January 14 he had played 19 games with a .916 save percentage and a 9-5-2 record.
At that moment he wasn’t even necessarily the goaltender that was most likely to be acquired by the Wild. There were other goaltenders on the market who were considered by many to be better options.
There were reports that the Wild were looking at Carolina’s Cam Ward. Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth were available and would eventually be traded. Sportsnet’s Headlines with Elliotte Friedman and Damien Cox suggested that one of these three was the most likely to come to Minnesota.
James Reimer was discussed.
Ilya Bryzgalov and Martin Brodeur were aging and struggling, but available. Bryzgalov had attended training camp with the Wild and could likely have been had for a song from Anaheim, who no longer had a need for him with John Gibson and Frederik Andersen healthy again. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth were also considerations. Struggling, but considerations.
On January 8, the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo suggested six goaltenders who could fit the bill. Dubnyk wasn’t one of them.
Dubnyk was far from the most likely candidate. All the more reason to give general manager Chuck Fletcher and staff credit for what would become a very big trade for the franchise. In the face of criticism and the potential for recency bias, they took the long view and saw Dubnyk as a player that could lift the team up. It didn’t hurt that the term, cap hit and price tag in trade were within the cap-strapped team’s budget. They also probably weren’t looking for quite the kind of lift that they would get.
Dubnyk wore a Wild sweater for the first time the night after the trade. The Wild, without a win in six straight games and 2-7-4 over their last 13, faced the Buffalo Sabres that night.
Earlier in the day coach Mike Yeo wouldn’t commit to starting Dubnyk because of Dubnyk’s late flight to join the team in Buffalo, the final game of a three-game road trip. Yeo met with him before the game. Yeo told him, “We don’t need you to come in and be a hero.” The Wild won the game, and Dubnyk posted an 18-save shutout.
Given, the Sabres were historically wretched, but, in retrospect, it was the moment the team turned a corner. It wasn’t immediately clear though. The team went 2-1-1 in Dubnyk’s first four games. Then they proceeded to go on an incredible run where Dubnyk didn’t lose two regular season games in a row during regulation until the 2015-16 season.
Dubnyk went 27-9-2 through the spring, starting all but one game during the team’s final 40 games. He wound up starting 40 straight games (dating back to time with the Coyotes). That’s the most consecutive games a goaltender has started since Evgeni Nabokov started 43 straight for the Sharks in the 2007-08 season.
Dubnyk allowed three or more goals just 10 times and put up five shutouts, finishing with a 1.78 goals against average and a .936 save percentage with the Wild. On the complete season he had a .929 save percentage and a 2.07 goals against average, both of which ranked second in the league. His 36 wins ranked sixth, which is noteworthy for a player who was a back-up on a cellar dweller for the first half of the season.
He was the franchise’s first ever number one star of the month in February, then was named the number three star of the month in March. There is zero doubt who the team’s MVP was in the second half of the season.
In the retrospect, this may be one of the better trades made last year.
The Wild paid a third to the Coyotes hoping to stabilize their net. The team was playing as if they didn’t trust their goaltenders to make a save, and with good reason. Darcy Kuemper and Nicklas Backstrom were 44th and 51st in even strength save percentage, respectively, of 52 goaltenders (min. 7 games) at the time of the trade.
It had been a couple of seasons of a goaltending carousel that was a house of horrors. The prior season the Wild suited Backstrom, Kuemper, Bryzgalov, Josh Harding and John Curry. Last season the team expected to have Harding be the starter. He broke his foot kicking a wall during camp. Once healthy, multiple sclerosis prevented him from getting his way back into the lineup.
Not only did this trade save the team’s season, it provided a franchise goaltender to take the reins after a couple of years where it was clear Backstrom could no longer fulfill that role and the team didn’t have his replacement in the system.
The Wild have traded many picks away over the last few seasons, making any pick a little harder to part with, but you almost never wind up getting so much for so little.