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Dumba determined to stick with Wild this time

Thinking he had finished a short interview in the hallway outside the Minnesota Wild’s dressing room Wednesday, Matt Dumba reached down for the lunch he had laid on the floor.

Considering the Wild’s depth on the blue line, would the young defenseman be disappointed if he started next season with the franchise’s minor-league team in Des Moines?

Dumba froze halfway to his food and glanced sideways at his inquisitor as if to say, “Dude, seriously?”

“Uh,” he started, searching for the politically correct answer. “That’s not my goal. I’m going to do whatever it takes to stay here.”

It’s hard to blame Dumba if he’s tired of discussing roster moves. The seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft spent his first, short stint in the NHL addressing the topic as the Wild debated keeping the 19-year-old defenseman or sending him back to the major junior Western Hockey League.

And there he was, on the first day of the Wild’s prospects camp, two weeks shy of his 20th birthday, answering the same dang question he answered nearly every day before the Wild sent him to play for Canada’s junior national team on Dec. 11.

Only this time, it would be the Des Moines Wild of the American Hockey League, a step up from the Portland Winterhawks, the team he led to WHL finals last spring with eight goals among 18 points in 21 playoff games.

In 26 regular-season games, the last of his four major-junior seasons, Dumba had 8 goals and 16 assists. But after starting the season in the NHL — Dumba had a goal and assist in 13 games with the Wild — he must have felt like the biggest kid on the block.

“You feel like that, but you come back to reality real quick,” he said.

The WHL is generally regarded as the toughest, physically, of the Canadian Hockey League’s major junior circuits, and league champ Edmonton — which beat Dumba’s Winterhawks in seven games for the title — went on to win the CHL championship.

“These kids in that league are going to push you and challenge you every night knowing who you are,” Dumba said. “You have to keep a level head, because if you start thinking you’re all that, and you stop working hard as you normally do, you’ll find you’re not making plays like you want to.”

So mission accomplished there. Now what does Dumba have to do to secure a permanent spot with the Wild?

“He’s like every kid; he just needs experience,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “It will be his first pro season, and he needs to gain confidence at the pro level. We’ll let his play dictate the decisions.”

At 6 feet, Dumba is not a large defenseman, not in his sneakers, anyway. But his 187-pound build is more like that of an NFL tailback or safety than an NHL player — all chest, shoulders and thighs. He is not, in other words, small, especially for a player who describes himself as “just a two-way defenseman.”

That will be a consideration for a team that lost its biggest, toughest defenseman, Clayton Stoner, to Anaheim as a free agent this month. The other issue, of course, is the fact that Minnesota has four defensemen on one-way contracts and another, Jonas Brodin, not going anywhere. That’s five of six starting spots taken, with free agent Nate Prosser at least technically still in the picture.

It’s a problem Fletcher doesn’t mind having, especially in light of his team’s postseason performance, a six-game loss to Chicago in the Western Conference semifinals that the Wild at times dominated.

With a roster full of young, talented players such as Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula on two-way deals, Fletcher can afford to be patient. A player like Dumba might be better off playing in Des Moines than sitting in St. Paul, Minn.

“We’re certainly in no rush,” Fletcher said. “We’re going to do what’s best for his overall development.”

But Dumba doesn’t have to think about that now. He has prospects camp through Monday, with scrimmages open to the public Friday in Edina and Monday at Xcel Energy Center, and likely the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., from Sept. 12-16 to get through before Wild training camp starts.

He didn’t like being sent back last fall, and doesn’t want it to happen again, even if he now acknowledges it might have been for the best.

“Everything happens for a reason; maybe I didn’t see it at the start,” he said. “That meeting, when I found out I was going to go back to junior, I was pretty disappointed about that, obviously. Everyone’s dream is to get to the NHL and stay there, and that certainly was mine.

“But I’ve seen the development in my game and what it’s done for me, and now coming back, I’m looking forward to using all of that and trying to make it full time this year.”

Briefly The NHL has approved a one-year, one-way contract worth $550,000 between the Wild and center Cody Almond, their fifth-round pick in the 2007 draft who spent the past two years playing for Swiss team Geneve-Servette. Almond was quoted on the Swiss team’s website Wednesday saying his goodbyes. In 44 games last season, he was 18-16—34. ... Minnesotans in the Wild’s prospect camp are Vinni Lettieri of Excelsior, Mario Lucia of Wayzata, Grant Opperman of Wayzata, Tyler Sheehy of Burnsville and Eric Scheid of Coon Rapids.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.