Building off a breakthrough: Matt Dumba

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild.

Coming into last season, Matt Dumba already established himself as a pretty nice NHL defenseman.

Considering how inexact a science drafting can be, the Wild had to set out a sigh of relief that the seventh pick of the 2012 NHL Draft was paying at least some dividends. Even so, the 2017-18 season really put Dumba’s skills on display.

For the third season in a row, Dumba hit the 10+ goal mark, generating a career-high 14. He also achieved a new peak in points, seeing a big jump from 34 points in 2016-17 to 50 in 2017-18. Dumba’s 50 points ranked 19th among defensemen – more than Dustin Byfuglien and Dougie Hamilton – while his 14 goals tied him for 10th at the position.

Really, Dumba presented upgrades across the board.

He already saw increases in ice time (16:50 TOI in 2015-16 to 20:20 in 2016-17), yet this past season really showed just how prominent Dumba’s become for Minnesota, as he logged 23:49 minutes per game. With Ryan Suter sidelined during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Dumba shouldered an even larger burden, averaging just under 27 minutes per game as the Wild fell to the Jets in five contests.

After signing his new five-year, $30M contract, Dumba spoke of even greater growth going forward.

“I look back at my personal growth over the season and I want that to just be the start,” Dumba said in July, via NHL.com. “I think I started the year a little slow, to be honest, and if I can play at the pace I was down the stretch the entire season, I think, I hope, I’m just scratching the surface.”

[Looking back at 2017-18]

In that same NHL.com article, you can see new Wild GM Paul Fenton discuss the elite company Dumba is joining from an offensive standpoint.

There’s a lot to love about Dumba’s game already, and he’s probably worth fighting through whatever flaws he has in his game. Still, if he wants to break through from very good to truly elite, becoming more effective in his own end could be key.

You can see big areas of improvement from 2016-17 to 2017-18 in deployment and production via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, yet some of the finer defensive points still need some work.

Now, it’s unfair to argue that Dumba didn’t make any strides in his all-around game. While his possession stats seem underwhelming, he went from receiving cushy offensive-zone starts to carrying a fairly heavy defensive workload, so keeping his possession stats at more or less the same level is reasonably promising.

In a lot of ways, the Wild’s outlook feels a little glum going into 2018-19.

The aging curve (or just injuries?) seems to have hit Zach Parise pretty hard, and considering the way Ryan Suter’s season ended, his huge minutes might be taking their toll. Spending big money but failing to get to that next level in the postseason cost Chuck Fletcher his job, and the Central Division only seemed to get grizzlier this summer.

Seeing significant improvements from Dumba and Jason Zucker soothes some of those wounds in Minnesota. If we’ve seen their peaks, they already represent very useful players. The Wild might need even more from them if they really want to leap over the many hurdles in the West, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.