The lower bowl of Rexall Place is filled with 4,000 Edmonton Oilers fans who have come to watch their NHL team practice, which means there is plenty of love to go around on this weekday morning.
Love for the Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). For Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. For the latest first-pick overall, Nail Yakupov.
But for the first-round draft pick standing tall in goal, it’s not that he’s unloved; it’s more about the questioning. Can he do it?
Can Devan Dubnyk play well enough to establish himself as a No. 1 goalie and lead his team to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?
It is the question much of the NHL is asking when it looks to the Oilers and digs past all their youth and skill. And it’s something the 26-year-old Dubnyk has heard, not just now but throughout his professional career.
His first year with the Oilers (2009-10, after being the 14th-overall pick in 2004), people wanted to know if he was good enough to be in the NHL. The next season, was he good enough to split the starting duties with veteran Nikolai Khabibulin? (He did and had 20 wins and 20 losses.)
Now, Dubnyk said: “It’s, ‘Is he good enough to be 1A?’ I’ll be happy to get to the next question.”
Playing a shortened NHL season will not be kind to NHL goalies. Games will come in waves, rest will be limited, slumps simply not tolerated. Like many of his puck-stopping peers, Dubnyk tried to hook on with a European team during the lockout, but wasn’t able to find anything to his liking.
He practised where he could – Calgary, Phoenix, Dallas, Colorado – and turned in a stellar showing in Switzerland, helping Canada win the Spengler Cup.
But even Dubnyk admitted he didn’t have a lot of game action to keep him ready for his Edmonton assignment, which could be one of the most difficult in the league. While the Oilers have all that skate-and-go talent, they’ve yet to hone their defensive game. Truthfully, they’re just getting started.
New head coach Ralph Krueger wants an aggressive, forechecking team but he also wants his forwards to be responsible defensively. That didn’t happen much last season, in which the 6-foot-5 Dubnyk bent over trying to clean up a lot of messy breakdowns. Some nights, he was glorious; others, he was overwhelmed.
At the end of it at least, Dubnyk came out a believer in his abilities to be the goalie hockey people will eventually stop questioning.
“You have to believe you’re good enough to be a starting goalie – not just a starting goalie but a great goalie in the league, and I truly feel that I can be,” Dubnyk said after Wednesday’s scrimmage. “There are going to be bumps in the road, but it goes the same with us as a team. We’re a young group but we’re building.”
Edmonton forward Sam Gagner played in the Spengler Cup with Dubnyk and liked what he saw in his teammate’s game.
“The biggest thing about Devan is his calmness. He really gives your team confidence, especially at the Spengler. He made big saves when we needed them, timely saves,” Gagner said. “Technically, he doesn’t have many weaknesses. He’s always square to pucks and you look at him in practice, he has great [work] habits. That’s how you become a No.1 goalie in this league. He just needs to continue to get game action, continue to earn respect.”
With Khabibulin, 40, coming off hip surgery, Dubnyk will start Edmonton’s season opener Sunday in Vancouver against the Canucks. As one of his predecessors learned – think of Grant Fuhr playing behind the free-wheeling Oilers back in the day – the best goalies are the ones who make the right saves at the right time. Dubnyk understands his time has come to show he can do that.
“Everyone’s bought in here and that’s the most important thing,” he acknowledged. “I have to keep the guys in the game. It doesn’t matter if we win 6-5 or 1-0; you’ve got to find a way to give the guys a chance. … It comes when you’re relaxed and knowing you can do it.”
From the other end of the Oilers dressing room, Gagner agreed wholeheartedly.
“Devan believes he’s ready for the challenge. From my eyes, I know he’s ready for it.”