Last season was supposed to be the one when Matt Dumba established himself as the alpha male on the Minnesota Wild blueline and emerged as an elite defenseman in the NHL. And it was looking really, really good there for a while. Two months into 2018-19, Dumba led all defensemen in goals, putting to good use his philosophy in which, “You just want the ‘biskie’ and rip it, just like a wild horse.” That’s how Matt Dumba talks, in case you were wondering.
Being hockey’s version of an equus ferus is not without its downside, however, which Dumba learned while he watched his teammates play the last 50 games of the season and miss the playoffs without him. Players such as Dumba almost always walk a fine line. You don’t want to take away the enthusiasm and energy that make them special because then you end up with Dion Phaneuf. But there’s an element that must be tamed for them to be successful NHL players.
Take last season, for example, when a combination of hockey’s outdated “code” and Dumba’s decision-making conspired to put him on the injured list for the last four months of the schedule with a pectoral muscle torn so badly it required surgery. It all started in a Dec. 6 game against the Calgary Flames in which eventual Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano appeared to intentionally stick his knee out, catching Wild captain Mikko Koivu, clipping Koivu and sending him crashing to the ice. Dumba responded by taking a hard, clean run at Mikael Backlund in the last minute of the game, after which Flames coach Bill Peters sent out Ryan Lomberg, who will never be confused with Jean Beliveau, to tackle Dumba and place a couple of punches to the back of his helmet.
Nine days later, the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk went after Dumba 40 seconds into the game, and Dumba accepted the invitation to fight. After getting caught with a punch where he had already received some stitches, Dumba tried to get even by throwing a haymaker that missed the target and tore his pectoral muscle. In a game where it’s all about picking your spots, Dumba probably could have been more judicious.
But those things can happen when you’re a guy who always wants to make a difference or wants to win the game with one play. You have to find your sweet spot and, with Dumba, that process continues. So now he has to wait until this season to make his mark and jump into the consciousness of hockey fans outside Minnesota, and waiting is not something that always comes easily to him. With Ryan Suter consistently among the NHL’s top minute-munchers and Swiss Army knife Jared Spurgeon not far behind, Dumba has flown a little under the radar. Until now. Possibly. “Upper level?” Dumba said. “I want to be talked about in that elite group of defensemen, like, top five. I want to keep climbing. I’ve got something to prove, so I’m going to keep playing with that chip on my shoulder and see where I can really take this. I do believe in myself and in my abilities, and I’ve got a great set of teammates around me, too. Anything’s really possible.”
Barring injury, Dumba will be on the right side of a pairing with Suter, so you know he’s going to be on the ice a lot. The energy Dumba brings to the game, the dynamic ability to move the puck and produce offense, the courage he has to make plays with a high element of risk – none of those represent a problem for him. But as is the case with a lot of young defensemen, particularly those with an offensive bent to their game, the real recognition isn’t going to come until he adds some texture to his game. To that end, Dumba has spent the past couple of years gaining the confidence of Wild coach Bruce Boudreau and, just as importantly, Boudreau’s defensive lieutenant Bob Woods. “It’s awesome. (Boudreau) has that trust in me now,” Dumba said. “It’s been earned. I’ve had to work for that. It hasn’t always been the best, but we’re at a point where the (relationship) is good. It’s awesome. (Woods) is awesome. He’s probably the best coach I’ve ever had, so I love working with him. I think that’s where my game has flourished. Working with him and breaking down my game…I feel like I can talk to him about anything, really. I think that’s what you look for in a coach. It’s my ideal coach.”
When Dumba talks about being a stallion now, he says he wants to be a hockey version of American Pharoah. In case you’re wondering, that’s a tall order. The great-great-great grandson of Secretariat became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown when he did it in 2015. But you can’t blame Dumba for aiming high. Playing a full season in 2019-20 would be a start. At 25, Dumba is rounding into the age group when many defensemen start to dominate their position. For his part, Dumba’s defense partner this season wants to see that dynamic, risky player on display as much as possible. “I would never talk to him about toning it down,” Suter said. “Because I love it. I think he’s good. I’m there, and if things break down, I’ll take care of it. You don’t want to take that out of a player. There are only a few players who have that, and he’s definitely one of those guys. But I think he realized, ‘OK, I can’t be one-dimensional. I have to be able to play both ends of the ice.’ ” – Ken Campbell
Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler is recognized as Anaheim’s No. 1 blueliner, but don’t forget Hampus Lindholm. The 25-year-old, two-way defender has seen his ice time increase in each of his six NHL campaigns. He topped Fowler last season and ranks No. 27 NHL-wide over the past three years.
Arizona Coyotes: When you lead a team in goals, the cat is out of the bag. But center Brad Richardson still isn’t on everyone’s radar. His team-high 19 goals last year lifted him above his bottom-six reputation. Prior to last season’s 14.8 shooting percentage, he was at 7.9 percent in 683 games.
Calgary Flames: When teams defend against Calgary’s weapons, the list gets long before Derek Ryan’s name appears. But in the 31 games after the all-star break, Ryan was second to only Johnny Gaudreau in team scoring with 22 points. He’s a terrific checker, penalty-killer and a faceoff beast.
Chicago Blackhawks:D-man Erik Gustafsson became an NHL regular last season, and his remarkable 17-goal, 60-point output made him a fixture of rookie coach Jeremy Colliton’s game plan. He’s a pending UFA and will be one of the most sought-after deadline additions if the Hawks don’t extend him.
Colorado Avalanche:Samuel Girard skated 1,631 minutes last season, the 77th-most of the 906 players to touch NHL ice, and took only three minor penalties. He has 14 penalty minutes in his 155 career games. He’s a burgeoning offensive stud and one of the league’s most disciplined defensemen.
Dallas Stars: Lost in the Miro Heiskanen hype and John Klingberg’s offensive excellence is ESA Lindell, who broke out last season and established himself as a minute-munching, top-pairing defenseman. His 24:20 average ice time ranked 14th in the NHL and is a testament to his value in Dallas.
Edmonton Oilers: If heavy hockey continues its resurgence, Zack Kassian can be a valuable weapon for the Oilers or a playoff-bound team. The rugged right winger has the versatility to play on any line and even chipped in a career-high 15 goals. A pending UFA next summer, he has trade value.
Los Angeles Kings: If the Kings are going to make any noise before they age out, Adrian Kempe will have to go from best-kept secret to prime-time player. The 23-year-old center had a flat development year offense-wise, but needs more playing time than the 13:41 he has averaged in three seasons.
Minnesota Wild:If his post-deadline play is any indication, expect big things from winger Ryan Donato. He burst onto the scene in Boston but really flourished in Minnesota when given the opportunity to skate in the middle of the lineup. Given his skill and smarts, there’s plenty of untapped potential.
Nashville Predators: The crease transition continues this season, and Juuse Saros is ready to assume a greater workload. Pekka Rinne’s understudy is undersized – he stands 5-foot-11, making him the NHL’s second-shortest goalie – but Saros’ quickness and ability to read the play are assets.
San Jose Sharks: The last thing the Sharks need is another offensive defenseman, but they’ve had one hiding in the back row for a couple years. Tim Heed was one of the top-scoring blueliners in Sweden for two seasons before doing the same thing in the AHL. At 28, the time is nigh.
St. Louis Blues:Robert Thomas got his name etched onto the Stanley Cup, but his rookie season was overlooked. His 33-point output was 10th-best among freshmen, and he looks primed to take the next step. Don’t be surprised if he’s playing second-line minutes by season’s end.
Vancouver Canucks: In Toronto, left winger Josh Leivo had a tough time earning more than 10 minutes a game, but he made the second line and second power-play unit in Vancouver. His hard wrist shot and quick release help explain why he has more goals than assists in 133 career games.
Vegas Golden Knights: Some day, right winger Alex Tuch will get a role in the top-six. You’d think that would have happened by now. The 2014 first-rounder improved upon a 15-goal, 37-point rookie season with 20 goals and 52 points as a sophomore. Yet he still sees bottom-six ice time. That will change.
Winnipeg Jets: If Jacob Trouba’s departure tells us anything, it’s just how confident Winnipeg is in Josh Morrissey’s ability to be the go-to guy on the blueline. He is one of the NHL’s most complete rearguards, and it won’t be long before he steps out of obscurity and into the spotlight.