“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
― A.A. Milne
The Washington Capitals have done a fine job of drafting and developing goaltenders in recent history. Since 2005 they have drafted ten goaltenders, three of them having appeared in 200 or more NHL games. A fourth goaltender from that cohort has NHL experience under his belt as well. Philipp Grubauer has a modest 42-game resume, but in 2015-2016 he established himself for the time being as the Capitals’ number two goaltender.
That role did not come without adjustments for Grubauer. He appeared in just 22 games in the regular season, his lightest game load in his five seasons in professional hockey (including ECHL, AHL, and NHL games played). His next lowest number of appearances in a season is 43 in 2011-2012.
Whether it was a product of the frequency of his play or the ebb and flow of an NHL season, Grubauer had an odd journey through last season. In seven games in which he appeared after an absence of ten or more days (including his first appearance of the season), he was 2-3-1, 2.88, .897. In the 15 appearances he made with less than ten days off, Grubauer was 6-6-0, 2.04, .928. And that ten-day threshold is a reflection of how much the team leaned on Braden Holtby early in the season. Of his first 13 appearances of the season, seven of them (including his first appearance of the season) came after an absence of ten or more days. None of his last nine appearances came after so long an absence.
Philipp Grubauer is quietly establishing himself in the community of goaltenders in franchise history. If he matches last year’s 22 appearances, he would surpass Craig Billington, Semyon Varlamov, and Mike Palmateer in games played for the Caps and would tie Mike Liut for 19th place among 46 goalies to suit up in Caps history. If he matches last year’s win total of eight, he would jump into the top 20 in wins in franchise history. His goals against average (2.37) is third among all Caps goalies to have appeared in at least 20 games and is just one point behind Jim Carey and Braden Holtby (2.38). His save percentage (.921) is tops among that same group of Caps goalies, a fraction of a point better than Braden Holtby.
Another way to look at Grubauer’s season last year is how he started and how he finished. In neither case was it good. In his first five games he was 2-2-1, 2.79, .896. In his last five games he was 0-4-0, 3.37, .872. In his middle dozen games he was 6-3-0, 1.46, .960. And, he was fine in a relief role in games, but in full games played his numbers were worse. In six games in which he did not play a full game he had a goals against average of 1.17 and a save percentage of .952. In games in which he played start to finish (or was pulled late for an extra skater) the numbers were 2.51, .913.
The Big Question… Is Philipp Grubauer a “bad luck” goalie?
Philipp Grubauer and Braden Holtby have almost indistinguishable career save percentages, the difference found only in the fourth decimal place (Grubauer is .9210, Holtby is .9209). However, while Holtby has a record of 149-60-25 in his 244 games to date, Grubauer is a comparatively lackluster 15-15-6 in his 42 games to date. Last season, Grubauer suffered poor scoring support. In 16 games in which he played the whole game he was the beneficiary of 37 goals worth of support (2.31 per game), and 14 of those goals came in just two games – a 7-4 win over Edmonton on October 23rd and a 7-1 win over Ottawa on January 10th. He had two or fewer goals of support 12 times and watched as his counterpart pitched a shutout at the other end of the rink in his last three full games. He has had some issues of inconsistency and, in fact, arguably took a half-step backward last year in taking on a bigger role, but he was often dealt a difficult hand to play, too.
In the end…
It is highly unlikely the Caps’ Stanley Cup hopes hinge on the performance of a backup goaltender (with apologies to the fans of Matt Murray in Pittsburgh). Given the Caps’ depth and skill level, it would seem unlikely that the Caps need an elite level of performance from Grubauer to reach the playoffs. If the Caps are struggling in that regard, they have much larger issues that depending on a backup goalie as the season’s savior are unlikely to address.
Grubauer’s role is simple, compared to that of just about any other skater of goalie. His role is primarily two-fold. First, he has to provide credible relief for Braden Holtby over the rigors of an 82-game season. He averaged about eight days between appearances last season (including games in which he replaced Holtby). The second, lesser role is to stop the bleeding within games in which Holtby is off his game and is relieved. To the extent he can do that, he gives the Caps the chance to steal a game or two. This is not likely to make much of a difference in the standings, but it is important in establishing the ability to come from behind, even when the Caps and Holtby have poor starts to games.
Philipp Grubauer might be on the brink of taking a larger place in the community of Caps’ goaltenders, but he is still significantly lacking in game experience at this level. There will be no rushing that in his backup role, but given the talent the Caps have at the top of the goaltending depth chart, there is little need to rush his development, either.
Projection: 22 games, 10-8-2, 2.29, .920
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America