One-third of the way through the 2016-17 NHL season, Devan Dubnyk is hockey’s best goaltender. His .946 save percentage is the best of any goalie to play more than two games this year, and among starters, it’s well clear of even Carey Price's incredible .940 for the Montreal Canadiens.
That performance, while undeniably impressive, isn’t the most astonishing thing about Dubnyk, though. The most astonishing thing about Dubnyk is that just three years ago, he was an afterthought, gifted from one team to the next like a surplus toaster.
That Dubnyk could go from valued to worthless to Vezina-worthy says a lot about how NHL teams evaluate goalies—and none of what it says is good.
Dubnyk started his pro career with the Edmonton Oilers. He’d been a top prospect in junior, going 14th overall at the 2004 draft. It was a controversial selection at the time, though not because of any deficiency on his part; it’s just that Al Montoya and Marek Schwarz were generally seen as the two potential franchise goalies in the draft (rated as the sixth- and eighth-best prospects by The Hockey News that year, respectively), and the latter was still available.
Dubnyk and fellow first-rounder Cory Schneider were both regarded as good, if lesser, prospects.
Edmonton has been criticized over the years for mishandling its prospects, but in Dubnyk’s case, the development process was exemplary. He got two years in junior post-draft, a full year as an ECHL starter and then most of three seasons in the AHL.
He made the jump to Triple-A hockey just as the Oilers finally got their own minor league affiliate. After years of Edmonton farming out their prospects with other organizations, Dubnyk would have the benefit of playing for a team dedicated to his development.
The slow approach paid off in spades. Dubnyk made the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis in 2010-11, and for three seasons, he played brilliantly for the Oilers. His save percentage was 15 points better than that of partner Nikolai Khabibulin, and he ranked 12th in save percentage among goalies with more than 100 games played over that span:
|Devan Dubnyk's peers, 2010-13|
And yet Dubnyk was underappreciated. Win percentage goes a long way toward explaining why. No other goalie to play 100 games over those three years won a lower percentage of them. The Oilers were historically bad, and as a result, it was easy to miss the fact that Dubnyk was playing on par with some of the NHL’s best goalies.
Then-Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish was one of those who missed that. During an event with season ticket holders in the summer of 2013, he made some damning comments about his starting goalie, per Jason Gregor of Oilers Nation:
As for Devan, I think that you're right, the verdict is out on Devan. I've always believed that when you're assessing goaltenders, if you have to ask the question you know the answer. The question would be, has Devan established himself as a number one goalie in the National Hockey League? And I still think it's a valid question.
How much MacTavish’s public skepticism affected Dubnyk’s game isn’t something knowable, but two things are certain: The next year, Dubnyk started poorly, and when he did, MacTavish didn’t have confidence in the player’s ability to bounce back.
After starting the year with a miserable .878 save percentage in October, Dubnyk climbed above the .900 save-percentage plateau in both November and December. It wasn’t enough; by January he was gone, shipped off to the Nashville Predators for fourth-line forward Matt Hendricks.
Over the next two months, Nashville gave Dubnyk all of two games. He didn’t play well, and in March, the Preds flipped him to Montreal for “future considerations.” Montreal stashed him in the minors and then decided not to re-sign him when he became a free agent that summer.
With three teams giving up on Dubnyk in the span of a year, it should come as no surprise that when free agency rolled around, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in the player. The Arizona Coyotes signed him to back up established starter Mike Smith, but even they must have had their doubts; they managed to secure Dubnyk’s services with a one-year deal worth just $800,000.
The rest is history. Dubnyk took over the starting job in the desert, posting a .916 save percentage over 19 games. The Coyotes already had Smith signed long term and for big money, so in January, they flipped the resurgent Dubnyk to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for a third-round pick, a pretty decent return for their initial outlay.
Dubnyk was glorious the rest of the way. He went 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage for the Wild, saving the team’s season, winning the Masterton Trophy and getting a second-team All-Star nod in the process. Minnesota wisely locked him up long term, giving him a six-year contract with an annual cap hit just north of $4.0 million.
It’s unlikely that Dubnyk’s .946 save-percentage roll will continue. Last year, he posted a respectable .918 number for the Wild, which is in line with his performance over three years for Edmonton. It’s probably too much to expect that he’ll keep pace with Price as one of the game’s two best goalies. Even so, at .918, he’s a legitimate No. 1 and one of the game’s best goalie bargains.
The fact that Minnesota was able to acquire him and then re-sign him so cheaply points to deficiencies in the way the league evaluates goalies, and that’s the broader lesson to take away here.
The first point is not to devalue goalies just because they play for bad teams. If anything, a goaltender with a high save percentage who loses a lot should probably be seen as more valuable because he’s playing well behind a wretched defence.
The second point is not to write off a goalie after one bad year. Edmonton both gets and deserves a lot of criticism for how quickly it cut bait with a player who had spent six years in the system and three years as a quality starter, but Nashville and Montreal and all the teams that didn’t make a better offer than Arizona made the same mistake. It may be a “what have you done for me lately” league, but that’s a bad approach to judging goaltending talent.
In the end, the surprise isn’t that Dubnyk is playing well or even that he’s in the Vezina conversation. The surprise is that so many teams still take such an obviously flawed approach to evaluating goalies.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.