ST. PAUL, MINN. — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ junior buddy, Matt Dumba, was the seventh player selected in a defence-heavy 2012 NHL draft.
He went after Hampus Lindholm and before Derick Pouliot for those keeping score.
Dumba was with the Minnesota Wild for the first 22 games this season, then in the American Hockey League with Iowa for the next 20, before being recalled Jan. 15.
He is definitely a unique talent, playing upwards of 18 minutes a night on the Wild’s blue-line. He loves to rush the puck and shoot, which got him drafted after playing with Nugent-Hopkins for coach Brent Sutter with the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League. But he also loves to crack on opposing players in open ice, which belies his medium 189-pound chassis.
“He would double back and boom,” said Nugent-Hopkins, recalling some of the open-space collisions where bodies were flying after a Dumba hit.
Now that he’s in the big-boy NHL, Dumba, 20, is more judicious with the offensive wizardry and the search-and-destroy smackdowns have been rare. But he’s still making impressive strides, showing why he was picked where he was.
“I am trying to play a simpler game, doing the little things asked of you. I’m a guy who wants to make a difference all the time, but you can’t do that in the NHL. They’re great players,” he said.
Ryan Suter, who plays the second-most minutes of any NHL defenceman behind Drew Doughty, is sitting beside Dumba in the Wild dressing room.
“Yes, that is by design,” said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo. “We have a lot of young defencemen and we try to make sure they’re surrounded by guys they can learn from, whether that’s a play in the course of a game where Suits can act as another coach or helping them to become a good pro and prepare for games.”
Yeo has seen a major improvement in Dumba since his short Wild audition last season.
“His progress this year has been very steady. I’m quite pleased he’s come along as quickly as he has,” said Yeo. “It’s obviously a different game in junior than the NHL. In junior, you can get away with more and he had the ability to go all the time.
“The pace of play wasn’t as fast there. If he made a mistake, he could recover. We’re still encouraging him to jump into the play and make things happen, though.”
Dumba was on a Red Deer team that beat a young Edmonton Oil Kings squad in the 2012 playoffs, with Nugent-Hopkins leading the way.
“Playing with Nuge was awesome. In Red Deer, we had a really good team … it was a blast,” said Dumba, who sees a much stronger Nugent-Hopkins now at 190-some pounds than the slender frame — Dumba called it “wiry” — he had with the Rebels.
“What I like is he hasn’t changed as person. He’s still really humble. In junior, he was easily the best guy in the league and you could never tell how he acted off the ice. He carried himself with such humility,” Dumba said.
The two players shared a few chuckles in Edmonton last week.