ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Mathew Dumba has enjoyed his time in Red Deer, Alberta, crediting his three seasons for the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League for his growth as a player.
Dumba, the Minnesota Wild's first-round draft choice in 2012, knows he may be returning to Red Deer, the small Canadian town located between Edmonton and Calgary. But he has designs on playing his 2012-13 season in a more heavily populated locale.
From a hockey-playing perspective, three years in Red Deer and junior hockey was enough for Dumba.
"It's a great city, it's taught me so much," Dumba said Tuesday, in town this week for the Wild's development camp. "But I'm ready to come to the big city."
Dumba has played three seasons with the Rebels, and his success in Red Deer drove Minnesota to make him the seventh-overall pick in the draft last summer. A 6-foot, 185-pound defenseman with a big right-handed shot, Dumba had 20 goals and 37 assists two years ago before being drafted by the Wild.
Following the lockout last year, Dumba was recalled from Red Deer and spent training camp with Minnesota and stayed with the team for the first week of the season though he didn't see any game action. The Wild kept his junior eligibility intact and sent him back to Red Deer, where he finished last season with 16 goals, 26 assists and 80 penalty minutes in 62 games.
Dumba knows staying in the NHL this season, at 19 years old, will be tough, but he made it clear Tuesday his goal is avoiding another trip back to juniors.
"I want to be in the National Hockey League this year," Dumba said flatly.
The Wild haven't ruled out the possibility, but Dumba's chances of turning pro became much tougher last week when Minnesota added veteran Keith Ballard in free agency and re-signed Jared Spurgeon to a three-year contract. The Wild's defense includes Calder Trophy runner-up Ryan Suter, one of the league's top rookies in Jonas Brodin, Ballard and Spurgeon to go along with Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser.
Seven NHL defensemen would make a jump for Dumba increasingly difficult. But Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher wasn't completely closing off the option with Dumba when he was asked in May following the Wild's playoff appearance.
"Sure, it's a hard league for 19-year-old defensemen," Fletcher said in May of Dumba, who turns 19 years old on July 25. "So, he's young. He is a dynamic talent. The power play, here's a guy that has a big right shot, a booming shot from the point. He's always been a very good power play player, he can block the line, can really skate, really competes."
But Dumba will have work to do. Minnesota's success with Brodin, who was the league's youngest defenseman this season at 19 years old, isn't a perfect correlation.
"Brodin is kind of an anomaly," Fletcher said in May. "He's maybe the only young defenseman I've seen that comes in being defensively really good. Normally young D' come in and they're good offensively. You got to teach them how to play defense over a couple of years and you live with their mistakes.
"Brodin's the opposite, but Dumba's the typical defenseman. His challenge will be playing defense in the NHL. It's a good league. And like all young D' that's the area he'll have to work on. There's some pretty good players. We just played a team (Chicago) that's pretty good and you've got to be sound defensively. But his strengths are what we need. Whether he's ready at 19 at training camp, I'm sure you guys will all have your opinions. We'll all watch and we'll see if that will be on the ice."
Dumba said he tried not to pay attention to NHL free agency last week, but his friends kept him well in touch with the moves Minnesota was making, such as trading Justin Falk, buying out Tom Gilbert and then signing Ballard and Spurgeon.
"It's just adds to my competitive edge," Dumba said of seeing potential spots filled. "I know I've got to come into camp and really battle and compete hard and show that I deserve a spot on this roster."
Rhyse Dieno, who's taking part in the Wild's development camp on an invitation basis, played with Dumba last season in Red Deer. Dieno said that Dumba, a leader for the Rebels, took him under his wing in his first season with Red Deer. Dieno said he'd be "surprised' if Dumba was back in Red Deer next season, though he'd welcome the chance to play with Dumba again.
"He's a step above everybody," Dieno said. "I think he's ready for the NHL."
Dumba feels the same way.
"Yes I do," Dumba said when asked if he likes his chances to make the Minnesota roster next season. "I believe in myself and I have that internal confidence in myself that I will come into camp and I'll battle and compete and show them that I deserve to be here."
He said he's learned a lot over the past year and credited his time early with the Wild last season, another season in Red Deer and even getting the chance to play three games late last season with Houston of the American Hockey League after his junior season ended on an amateur tryout basis.
Returning to the AHL isn't an option for Dumba because of age requirements. Players from the Canadian Hockey League, which covers the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League aren't eligible to play a full season in the AHL until they are at least 20 years old.
So, it's Minnesota or Red Deer for Dumba later this fall.
"It can be frustrating because I know where I want to be and I know that's the National Hockey League and I wouldn't like to think about the possibilities of me dropping to Red Deer," Dumba said of the age requirement. "My focus right now is just on the Minnesota Wild and being a member of that team come September."
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