Headfirst approach fueling Devan Dubnyk’s hot start with Wild

Lyle Mast's concepts helped transform Devan Dubnyk’s game, and after working with the goalie coach himself, the Wild goalie is among the NHL’s league leaders in 2016-17.
Publish date:

PHILADELPHIA – It’s a shame, really, that the man in the nearby lounge chair has dozed off, because otherwise he would’ve seen something quite special: Devan Dubnyk, all six feet and six inches, upper half in a picnic-blanket blue shirt and the lower part in jeans, demonstrating goalie drills on the Ritz Carlton carpet. Now halfway through a four-game road trip in mid-November, Dubnyk has also developed a bit of a stuffed nose, evidenced by the Neti Pot in his shopping bag. This makes the visual explanation from the Minnesota Wild netminder all the more appreciated.

“It’s subtle,” he’s saying. He’s also crouched down, invisible stick and glove in his hands, swatting shots away. “If that puck comes…all I have to do is THIS…and you’re there…but….HERE to HERE…or if you’re HERE…then it’s a big difference.”

Dubnyk calls the concept he’s acting out, “that whole head tracking thing.” His teacher, British Columbia-based goalie coach Lyle Mast, rolls with the more clinical “head trajectory.” In simple terms, which admittedly belie the subtle intricacies Mast employs, it’s about beginning every movement upstairs: Lead with the head—“track down on the puck”—and the body follows. This tightens up rotations, reducing wasted movement and slow rotations at a position where one-tenth of a second can separate saves from goals. “We laugh because it sounds stupid,” Dubnyk says. “But Lyle always just says, ‘Look at it.’ That’s really what it is. Imagine that your eyes are stuck in the middle of your eye sockets. What would be the only way to look at the puck? To move your head.”

Dubnyk arrived at this point, on the carpet next to the snoozer, while endeavoring to explain his hot start to ’16-17, which through Wednesday had him ranked second NHL-wide in both save percentage (.946) and goals against average (1.66). New coach Bruce Boudreau’s influence has helped to an extent. (His Ducks’ netminders won the William Jennings Trophy last season.) But after spending a second full summer with Mast for the first time, Dubnyk also undoubtedly looks stronger than ever; in 17 appearances, he has faced 30-plus shots on 10 occasions and has given up three goals only one more time (five) than he’s allowed none (four). Three of those shutouts came consecutively.

Being No. 2: Hockey’s cushiest gig is also one of its toughest

Two-plus years ago in Jan. 2015, after a brief confidence-boosting tenure with the Coyotes, Dubnyk came to Minnesota at the buy-low price of a third-rounder and promptly went on what he now calls “my run.” It was both unexpected—the Wild had been Dubnyk’s fifth team in two seasons, including a stint with Montreal’s farm team—and scorching. He started 39 straight games and won 27 of them, piggybacking Minnesota into the playoffs with a .936 save percentage.

Sometime in the middle, Dubnyk mentioned during an interview that he had spent a brief portion of the previous summer at trainer Andy O’Brien’s star-studded camp—Crosby, Kane, Tavares, those types—in Vail, Colorado. On the two-hour ride from the airport, Dubnyk found himself chatting up Steve Valiquette, the former NHL goalie and then-Islanders scout who was in town to help coach. That night, they dined at a steakhouse and Valiquette relayed what he had had learned about head trajectory from Mast. Told Dubnyk to imagine his eyes locked in their sockets. Got on the carpet to demonstrate. Spent sessions helping fix Dubnyk’s chest angle, so his posture wasn’t as rigid and far back, so he tracked down on the puck. Nothing major, though, just an introduction to the principles. Dubnyk remembers saying as much in the interview.

“Then it kind of got blown up throughout the year,” he says. “It just came out that I talked to a guy about it a little bit, and just made it sound like I had worked more with it than I had. It was a tough situation. Everybody was curious about it. Everybody wanted to know. I’m on the NHL Network, live interviews, trying to explain something that I don’t know what it is.”

Indeed, stories at the time painted head trajectory as the salvation of Dubnyk’s career, given that the goalie’s previous season had seen him post sub-.800 save percentages at three different stops in Edmonton, Nashville, and with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldog, and then finish third in Vezina Trophy voting in 2014-15. In truth, he’d never even spoken to Mast. “To be honest,” he started telling people who asked, “you’ve got to talk to somebody else. I know so little.”

The following summer, Valiquette connected Mast and Dubnyk, another B.C. resident in the offseason. Mast, whose portfolio includes his consulting company (OR Sports) and a recent gig with the Maple Leafs, had been collecting video on Dubnyk since the goalie’s time with the Oilers. “You could see a guy with incredible potential,” Mast says, “but really, really struggling for consistency, or struggling to break through or gain confidence or whatever. He’d have great runs, and then fall apart, and then great runs, and then fall apart. Some of the greatest saves, and then some of the worst goals.”

Dubnyk had the basic headfirst idea down when he began working with Mast two summers ago, before his first full season in Minnesota. (The concepts themselves aren't that uncommonly known. The Kings' Jonathan Quick speaks about it often, for instance; in Washington, much of Braden Holtby's rejuvenation under goalie coach Mitch Korn began with generally tightening his upper torso's movements, head included.) But their sessions also picked at another weakness of the league’s second tallest netminder, behind Ben Bishop: skating. Before, Dubnyk’s limbs might open up on his lateral movements, either exposing gaps for shooters or lumbering into an awkward position for a second or third push. As one NHL goalie coach puts it, “[Dubnyk] probably needed it the most. He had the biggest body to control. Big guys create holes, and this closes the holes.”

It's hammer time: More tales from the NHL’s second-string goalies

At the Ritz, Dubnyk stands up again. “Okay, I’m here, facing the blue line, and a pass goes THAT way,” he says. Doesn’t matter which way. Follow along in your mind. “We always think, okay, you see the pass and you’re going to track it, but the first thing you always do is start to move your leg. The pass goes, you move your leg. This the whole eliminating delay thing. This is being patient, too.

“Instead of trying to jump the pass, because you know it’s coming, instead of trying to move really fast, if you just watch it, all you have to do is push off this leg. When you’re looking at it, everything just goes THERE. Even just doing that drill, facing the blue line, and I push to the other blue line, I can tell if I’m doing it or not. If I’m doing it properly, all I have to do is push and stop with my foot and I’ll be square. If I don’t look and do it properly, then I’ll have to stop, and stop again, because I won’t be square. That’s the indicator that I didn’t lead.”

If Dubnyk can’t self-diagnose during games, quick 10-minute video conference sessions with Mast help review what he missed. That Wild brass also retained goalie coach Bob Mason under Boudreau was a big deal too, given how much Dubnyk had recently learned. “It was hard for me to talk to Bob about it for a while, because I didn’t know what I was talking about,” he says. “Can’t be saying, ‘Hey, watch this for me,’ when I don't know what you should watch for. This year, I understand it more. I’ll ask him to watch a few things. If I’m not doing this, let me know.

That happened in fits and starts last season, but less so now. “When you’re like, ‘holy crap, I just waited a really long time, that guy was right there’…When you start to feel things like that, it’s fun. To really know when it’s working, when it’s not, sometimes I could feel it come and go and not know why. That’s why I’m going to be working with it until I’m done playing hockey.” In other words, head trajectory gets him fired up. The get-down-on-the-carpet, show-you-what-I’ve-got kind.