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Unmasked: Devan Dubnyk sees big improvement

Vision training helps Wild goalie become one of NHL's best

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk assumes a familiar position in front of a hockey net, but there is no ice and no sign of his usual equipment.

Instead of wearing pads, Dubnyk is on his knees, crouched on two small blocks of foam. Gone is his mask, replaced by a backwards baseball hat and, though he is indoors, a big pair of sunglasses.

There are no pucks, just tennis balls being tossed from behind the net and off a board in front of Dubnyk that has been angled to ensure they come back at him in a trajectory similar to that of a shot off the ice. The sunglasses are equipped with strobes, flashing to limit Dubnyk's vision as he tries to stop balls thrown by Josh Tucker, owner of True Focus Vision.

"It's actually incredibly hard the higher you set the difficulty level on the glasses," said Dubnyk. "The best part is when you take them off after and catch the balls with nothing on you catch everything, even if he is throwing as hard as he can."

In the past, Dubnyk used various exercises to warm up and strengthen the muscles around his eyes, but after working with Tucker as part of the Net360 Goalie camp last summer, he ramped things up. In addition to "six or seven" in-person sessions at True Focus Vision near his Minnesota home this season, he's had vision-training software installed on his laptop for when the Wild are on the road.

For Dubnyk, the additional focus on improving his ability to focus is just one part of a rise from thrice-traded American Hockey League afterthought three years ago to the NHL leader in wins (31) and save percentage (.933) this season.

Dubnyk credits his place among the NHL's best to a number of factors, including the foundation laid by former Edmonton Oilers goaltending coach Frederic Chabot. Dubnyk was traded from the Oilers to the Nashville Predators on Jan. 15, 2014, starting a miserable span that included Dubnyk's being traded to the Montreal Canadiens on March 5 and being demoted to the AHL for a second time before serving as a fourth-stringer during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Among the reasons Dubnyk lists for the turnaround are the perspective gained during that dismal season, one that saw him living out of hotels in four of the five stops, separated from his wife and first child, five-month-old Nathaniel.

"I saw how fast it could be taken away," Dubnyk said. "So I want to be grateful and enjoy every chance I get to play in the NHL, really enjoy every minute I get to play. I play a lot more minutes now but I will always try to keep that mentality."

Video: ANA@MIN: Dubnyk snags Silfverberg's wrister

Dubnyk's rise to Vezina Trophy finalist the following season started with a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Arizona Coyotes and invaluable time with former NHL goalie Sean Burke, the Coyotes goalie coach at the time. Burke boosted Dubnyk's confidence and ability to manage his own depth on the ice with a simple rule: If he couldn't beat a pass on his feet and be set, he was too far out.

"That was a big part of this," Dubnyk said.

Both lessons paid off after a trade to the Wild on Jan. 15, 2015. Dubnyk started a Minnesota-record 38 straight games and went 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage to finish the season, helping the Wild make playoffs and finishing third in Vezina voting. He also was fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and won the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

Dubnyk's dedication to his craft has continued to grow. He has a strong working relationship with Wild goalie coach Bob Mason and works with private consultant Lyle Mast of OR Sports, building on his understanding of head trajectory, a philosophy that was introduced prior to the 2014-15 season by a mutual friend, former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette.

Dubnyk, like Mast, believes proper head trajectory or "puck-tracking" has always been a part of good goaltending and goalie instruction. But linking it back to exactly "how" the head moves and how that affects the biomechanics of everything from skating to save execution to post-save recoveries provided him with an anchor for his game that didn't previously exist.

Video: DET@MIN: Dubnyk denies Mantha twice early in the 2nd

"The quicker you can understand why things work when they work and why things don't when they don't, the more consistent you can be and that's the thing I focus on the most and have and will until the end of my career," Dubnyk said. "Before it was like, 'Am I squeezing too much, am I trying too hard, am I too far out?' All these things that when you are not feeling too good you try to figure out. It can be hands, feet, rotations, I gotta fix this, that, this, and that's how things snowball."

Dubnyk now recognizes problems with tracking often start with his stance. More importantly, he understands why and can spot the resulting delays in his skating and setup when it's off.

That's why, though he played in his first NHL All-Star Game last season, a big part of his continued work with Kelowna, British Columbia-based trainer Adam Francilia in the offseason focused on making sure his body could support the stance that allows him to maintain those movements. Add in the ongoing work with Mast, Tucker and Mason and the most remarkable part of Dubnyk's success the past two years is he doesn't feel that his play needs to be remarkable to maintain it.

"It's fun to feel like this level of play is not only sustainable but I can keep improving," Dubnyk said. "That's why you surround yourself with all these great people."

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