Career salvation for Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk did not come easy

Devan Dubnyk is leading the league with a lofty save percentage. Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

It's the opening game of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. Star goalie Carey Price suffers an injury, and it doesn't look good.

Two time zones away in Edmonton, Devan Dubnyk, technically still property of the Montreal Canadiens but on leave, cannot believe the sickest of ironies.

"I remember watching that game too, and I was like, 'What the f---. Of course!' " Dubnyk recalled this week, shaking his head. "That was the very day I got home."

That day -- May 17, 2014 -- might have been rock bottom of an already awful 2013-14 season.

Because the reality is that even if Dubnyk had not pulled the plug on his season and had stayed in Montreal, where he was trying to work his way into the organization, he was in no position to help the Habs.

Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj were ahead of him on the depth chart. And he was in a place, both technically and mentally, having not played in forever, having had a miserable season ... well, he wasn't going to help anyone.

"I wasn't dumb. I mean, if I truly thought I would have had an opportunity, I wouldn't have gone anywhere. But it had been such an insane season and I had a 10-month-old son at home. I hadn't seen him for 10 weeks. I'm practicing with six guys every day in Brossard," Dubnyk said of the Habs' practice facility. "There's more important things I need to be doing in my life right now, and that's being a dad. The Canadiens were awesome about it. I just told them I had to go see my son and my wife."

Just two and a half years later, now with the Minnesota Wild, Dubnyk finds himself just ahead of Price atop the NHL with a .946 save percentage, a lofty perch not based on catching lightning in a bottle but rather a continuation of his technical and mental turnaround that began right after that 2013-14 season.

"The fun part about it is that it doesn't feel like anything crazy; it doesn't feel like I'm hanging on for dear life until something collapses," Dubnyk said of his league-leading save percentage. "It just feels like we're playing well together as a team, I've got a great feeling standing back there. ... They're letting me make great reads and be patient. I'm just really comfortable back there."

Confidence, humility, humor, all three resonate during a half-hour interview with ESPN.com Monday evening at the Wild's team hotel in downtown Toronto.

However painful that 2013-14 season might have been, it has no doubt forged the person and goaltender that the 30-year-old is today.

"I always viewed great adversity as a gift, I've always believed in it," Dallas Eakins, Dubnyk's former head coach with the Edmonton Oilers, said last Friday. "I think it makes us better people, better at our jobs, all those things, to go through some nasty, nasty adversity. Probably that time in Edmonton and then going through a couple of organizations very quickly, that was surely very hard on Devan and his family."

Former Oilers GM Craig MacTavish says he feels the same way.

"A lot of times failure is the impetus that spurs development," MacTavish said Monday. "I really believe that with Devan. Whether it's a mentality change, whether it's a commitment change, whatever it is, failure for me leads to opportunity when framed the right way. And I think Devan really framed it the right way."

Relayed MacTavish's comment, Dubnyk concurred.

"You know what, I think he's right. You have to go through these things in life and in your career," he said. "There's no way to know what it is you have to go through. Not everyone has to get traded or go down to the minors like I did."

But that was indeed his path.

The seeds of that pivotal 2013-14 season were planted at the June 2013 draft in New Jersey when word leaked that the Oilers were trying to acquire Cory Schneider from the rival Vancouver Canucks (which McTavish confirms). Schneider would end up being traded to the New Jersey Devils instead that weekend, but the psychological damage had been done for Dubnyk, who was entering the final year of his contract.

"It was disappointing, for sure," Dubnyk said. "With MacT coming in as a new GM, he's the boss, and he needs to build the team as he sees fit. Cory Schneider is a world-class goalie, so it's not like he's out there trying to get some bum to replace me. But I was disappointed because I felt I had shown in the previous year, it was my best season, I had a .920 [save percentage], I didn't understand where it was coming from."

What it did is plant the narrative with Oilers fans that their goaltending wasn't good enough.

His opening five games were a nightmare, Dubnyk giving up 22 goals. It snowballed from there.

"I didn't do myself any favors, I wasn't exactly knocking any pucks down," he said. "I'll never forget those first 4-5 games. I remember the days between games, I felt sick. We'd be on the road and I would go to a movie to try and just lose myself for two hours. As soon as the movie was over, I felt sick again. That was a really tough couple of weeks to start the season."

He actually steadied himself to some degree, but his fate was set. The Oilers traded him to the Nashville Predators for Matt Hendricks on Jan. 15, 2014, though Dubnyk played only two games.

"I remember when we traded him, I was talking to him in my hotel room," said Eakins, now head coach of the Anaheim Ducks' AHL affiliate in San Diego. "I was actually really excited for him.

"When a goaltender is just OK or suffering, a good team is able to forge through and support the goalie. That was the one thing we couldn't do in Edmonton. I felt terrible about it personally. I know the organization didn't feel good about it, either. We weren't able to support Dubs on a nightly basis. And man, he was battling hard, he was doing everything he could to try to help us win. I always appreciated that about him and really respected that."

Dubnyk has no bitterness toward the Oilers, grateful for them for giving him his start.

"[But] my journey is that I had to really crash and burn, and it took me to Arizona," he said, "where I was just so grateful at that point just to have a job in the NHL."

He loved his short time with the Arizona Coyotes, where he signed as a free agent in July 2014. It's where he rebooted his career. It's where he met Sean Burke.

"He really started it all for me. Burkey just gives you confidence without saying anything," Dubnyk said. "You know he thinks you're good. And if you're not doing something right, he's going to tell you. He's not going to beat around the bush. You know where you stand with him and you know he's got your back."

Burke, goalie coach and assistant GM with the Coyotes at the time, had helped resurrect Mike Smith's career as well. He saw another worthy project in Dubnyk.

"We got him sort of beat up and bruised," Burke, now a Western scout for the Canadiens, said Monday. "But I remember thinking it was a good move on our part. Devan was always intriguing to me, a big guy who moved fairly well. He came in with a really open mind. He's a really nice person. I just remember from the minute I met him that I knew he was going to be a sponge."

Dubnyk distinctly remembers after his third game of the 2014-15 season, a 6-5 win Nov. 2 at the Washington Capitals, that Burke took him aside and showed him a video that helped his positioning through more efficient movement.

"He wanted me to beat the pass on my feet and be set. That was really it, it was pretty simple," Dubnyk said.

"It just sharpened everything up for me, that's what got everything going for me."

With Smith signed long-term and Dubnyk on a one-year deal, Coyotes GM Don Maloney dealt Dubnyk to the Wild on Jan. 15, 2015 -- one year to the day after his trade by the Oilers.

The Wild, flailing away on miserable winless streak, saw their season completely turn around after Dubnyk's acquisition (for a third-round pick, no less). It proved a good move by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, who called it an act of "desperation" at the time. Dubnyk went on a historic run, starting 40 straight games and almost single-handedly pushing the struggling Wild from down the standings to into the playoffs.

In the meantime, Dubnyk began forging a very good working relationship with Wild goalie coach Bob Mason. But on top of that he also found another edge in his game after being introduced to Lyle Mast, a goalie guru who had developed a ground-breaking teaching method that focused more on vertical movement than lateral movement while tracking the puck.

Mast has worked for years with Los Angeles Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford and netminder Jonathan Quick, as well as other goalie coaches and netminders in pro and junior. Dubnyk talks or texts with Mast around almost every game.

But this is more than just a technical revival. This meteoric rise from the ashes of that 2013-14 season is just as much a mental one.

"Oh, 100 percent," Dubnyk said. "Getting to that state of mind of just being grateful to have a job."

Seriously, he means that. He got to a point heading into July 1, 2014, with agent Mike Liut when he prepared himself to accept where his career was going.

"Right before I signed in Arizona, the only thing I did accept just to almost relieve some pressure, I just understood that at my age [28 at the time] and the situation I was going in with Smithy there, is that my window might have passed in terms of being a starter," he said. "Just because of the way the league is."

He's now a top-five goalie in the world.

Signed to a six-year, $26 million deal with the Wild in the summer of 2015, Dubnyk is in a good place. All around.

"Minny is such a great place to raise a family, we enjoy it so much there," said Dubnyk, who with his wife has two boys, 3 and 1. "I mean, life is great. Gosh, it was so close to being a whole lot different than that ..."

But it's not. Because Devan Dubnyk didn't give up. Because he stayed positive. He rolled up his sleeves and went back to work, just as so many people counted him out.