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In the hunt for No. 1

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Devan Dubnyk’s 2010-11 season began under uncertain circumstances.

A year prior he shared duty, guarding the crease in 19 games with the Oilers and 33 with the team’s AHL club in Springfield. Heading into training camp last September, it was a matter of earning his keep and carving his edge as Edmonton’s backup netminder.

In the end, he beat out Jeff Deslauriers and began his search for the No. 1 role as Nikolai Khabibulin’s successor. In did quite well, too. In total, he skated in 35 games, posting a .917 save-percentage and 2.71 goals-against average.

Not bad, rookie.

“It was a good year,” he said at the Kinsmen Twin Arenas Tuesday. “I learned a lot, and I think that was the biggest thing. As the year went on and especially near the end, I started to get a lot more comfortable. I wanted to come into the year last season and get going right away, not having that learning curve.

“It was good to get out there, I got lots of playing time. I wasn't sure what to expect at the start of the year. I want to use that to my advantage this season.”

There’s no question that’s become a helpful building block, but Dubnyk knows there’s more to the equation. Over the course of the season, the humble 25-year-old gained notoriety for his unshakable presence, which apparently made an impact with the coaching staff as well.

Head Coach Tom Renney remarked several weeks ago that he thought Dubnyk was ready to make a charge for the starting role. Not only does he possess the skill-set to do so, but also the mind to put everything together.

“I absolutely feel ready [to become a starter],” Dubnyk said. “In many ways, I was ready last year – I certainly approached the season that way, anyway. It’s my job to earn that.”

Dubnyk doesn’t apply any extra, unneeded pressure. He understands he’ll get his time in the crease, but how much is a decision best made by Renney at a time when his play can be properly evaluated.

It’s up to the 6’6”, 202-pound netminder to prove his value.

“It's really exciting coming in here this year and having that opportunity. I know I’m ready for the challenge. I want to approach it the same as last year. When you earn your chances, you always play better. It feels great knowing you got where you did because you made the most of your opportunity. That’s what I’m aiming to do.

“I don’t have a set number of games that I’d like to play, but I want to get in as many as possible.”

Standing in his way is a 38-year-old, 15-year NHL veteran. He’s a Stanley Cup winner as well. And although he’s coming off a disappointing season in which he posted one of the worst records among starting goaltenders, he’ll be poised to rebound.

Even so, the relationship between Dubnyk and Khabibulin is as healthy as can be. Both push each other to improve, battling to best one another to help the team succeed.

“He's been awesome,” Dubnyk said of Khabibulin's mentorship. “He’s extremely supportive. He’s an awesome partner and he wants me to do well, both in practice and when I play.

“We push each other by the way we play, but he’s so supportive and I try to be the same way back to him. It makes it more fun to play and be in the locker room when you’ve got that kind of a mentor. It’s a great relationship and I certainly don’t expect that to change.”

It’s going to be a battle, but Dubnyk appears ready to step up, challenge his mentor and capture the starting role in his sixth pro season.

“It's good to get back here. This past month has been pretty long. I'm tired of summer hockey and I'm looking forward to the real thing.

“I'm really pumped, as I'm sure everyone is. It's going to be an exciting year, that's for sure.”

Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

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