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When NHL free agency began on July 1, the Coyotes were one of several teams to conduct an interview with free-agent defenseman Matt Dumba. Included in that group of suitors were several playoff teams with cap constraints; teams that needed to move money or players to facilitate the signing. Dumba’s talks with those teams even reached the point of agreed-upon contract parameters should those teams be able to free up the necessary cap space.
As July dragged on, however, it became clear that those teams would not be able to free the necessary space so Dumba circled back to a group of teams that had the space to bring him in without making other moves. Along with the Coyotes, the Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks and San José Sharks had interest. Some of those clubs even enlisted players to woo Dumba, such as Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes and Coyotes center Nick Bjugstad, who had re-signed with the Coyotes earlier in the summer and had played with Dumba in Minnesota.
Dumba was looking for two things in free agency. He wanted to play for a highly competitive team. He also wanted to play a more significant offensive role than he had the past few seasons in Minnesota where his minutes had fallen to third-most among defensemen on the team, his power-play time was virtually non-existent, and his defensive zone starts ranged from 53.5 to 54.7 percent over the past three seasons. He didn’t mind the attention that his sound defensive game was getting — “I think it’s a big piece of my game now,” he said — but he wanted to show that he was still a two-way defenseman.
Dumba didn’t pursue a long-term deal from anyone. He pursued a deal that he could use to catapult to a better situation when the cap was scheduled to rise more significantly the next two seasons.
What tipped the scales for Arizona was likely something that had happened several seasons earlier during the COVID-19 shutdowns. While greater restrictions were in place in states such as Minnesota, a number of NHL players were skating at the Ice Den Scottsdale and Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, including Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. At that same time, Dumba’s longtime trainer, Tommy Powers, was the strength and conditioning coach for the Coyotes. Powers also works with Clayton Keller.
Dumba stayed at Powers’ house while he trained and he fell in love with the Valley. He played a lot of golf, he soaked in the spectacular weather that Phoenix offers eight months out of the year, and he eventually bought a home here.
In a perfect world, Dumba would have signed with a Cup contender that was ready to hand him a greater role, but don’t mistake the Coyotes for a team at the opposite end of Dumba’s wish list. They were always high on his list and when last weekend rolled around, he was ready to sign a one-year, $3.9 million contract with a $1.35 million signing bonus that won’t be paid until April 15.
“I am fortunate that, over the past three years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of guys on the team already, just skating with them in the summer or working out and training with them,” Dumba said. “I’m pretty good friends with Kells. We golf a lot together. It’s gonna be a good fit.”
In order for it to be an optimal fit, Dumba will have to put up better offensive numbers than he has the past three seasons. He’ll have a better opportunity to do that in Arizona than he did with his previous team — much like Shayne Gostisbehere did the past two seasons. Even so, Dumba will still have to earn some of that opportunity.
“Matt’s a hard-hitting defenseman, he’s got a rocket of a shot, he plays with a lot of will and I think a lot of people have fear when he’s on the ice because of his ability to launch himself and hit hard but clean,” Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said. “As Matt’s gotten older, he’s learned to play within his limits and I think when he does that he’s very, very effective.
“He can move a puck and he’s got a great stick so if we can just get him dialed into a partner that complements him, I think we can find a really good pairing and he can be one of our top-four guys and then add in on the second power-play unit with his big shot.”
At age 29, Dumba understands the importance of this season. The aging scale for defensemen is different than it is for forwards, but it is no secret that 30-something players are widely viewed as players in decline.
With that in mind, he has doubled down in his offseason efforts with Powers, who now runs Empowers Performance in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.
“You should see him in here,” Powers said. “He’s doing things that he was doing when he was 16, 17, 18, 20 years old. He’s springy, he’s explosive, he’s rotational. I don’t see any limitations whatsoever.
“At this point in his career, it’s just about taking care of his body and making sure that his hips are moving well. He’s had some stuff in the past where things didn’t feel as well as they should so it’s about making sure that he’s got a lot of mobility in his hips as well as core stability so he stays really engaged through the movements. He has worked a lot on being explosive and having a lot of strength. When you get to be 29 or 30, you tend to break down more and learn what’s best for you. I think he’s really listening to his body and knowing when to do certain things.”
The Coyotes won’t decide on their defense pairings until training camp begins and the coaching staff has had a good look at how players work together. Armstrong emphasized that it is the coaches’ decision alone before diving into the possibilities.
“JJ Moser is probably the most comparable to Jonas Brodin and Matt played really, really well with Brodin in Minnesota,” Armstrong said. “You just don’t know until they play together, but there’s a lot of options back there with [Juuso] Välimäki and [Travis] Dermott and even [Sean] Durzi can play the offside.”
However the pairing plays out, Dumba is determined to set the same sort of example that he did for 10 seasons in Minnesota.
“I know the consistency that you gotta bring on daily basis and I’ve kind of fallen in love with the monotony of the regimen and the preparation,” he said. “I hope the guys see that and see that I move as a professional and a guy who wants to get better every day. I think that that mindset can be contagious. I want to bring my hard work ethic and I do believe true leadership is digging in and putting in the work first and setting an example. That’s where it’s gonna start.”