“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.”
-- Carl von Clausewitz
Last Season: 15-17-6, 2.91, .896, 2 shutouts with Hershey Bears
Well, consider us fascinated at the prospect of Pheonix Copley sliding into the backup goaltender role for the Washington Capitals in 2017-2018. Fans of the Caps have been spoiled over the last three seasons, what with the club employing two – and only two – goaltenders in specific, well-defined roles. Braden Holtby was the number one netminder, and Philipp Grubauer was the backup (except for the first two games of the 2018 postseason). The Caps are the only team over the past three seasons to employ only two goaltenders in the regular season. More than half of the teams in the league dressed six or more (16 teams), and both the Arizona Coyotes and Calgary Flames dressed ten over that period.
We are past that. Grubauer is in Colorado fighting for a number one spot of his own, and Copley, who has two games of NHL experience (both with the St. Louis Blues), is getting his shot at a permanent subordinate role in Washington. He has come quite far since, as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan Tech University, he signed with the Caps in March 2014. And while he has only those two games of experience with the Blues after the Caps traded him there with Troy Brouwer and a draft pick in July 2015 for T.J. Oshie, he has a reasonably good AHL record (73-48-12, 2.55, .913, with nine shutouts in 145 games over four seasons with the Hershey Bears and Chicago Wolves).
Odd Copley Fact…
Copley is first and only, to date, goaltender born in Alaska to play in the NHL. Copley was born North Pole, AK. Ty Conklin, who played in 215 NHL games with six teams, was raised in Anchorage, AK, but was born in Phoenix, AZ.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and it is hardly unheard of for a rookie goaltender to get 15 or more starts. As a group, rookies starting at least 15 games since 2005-2006 have a GAA of 2.59 and a save percentage of .913, although the range for both statistics is quite significant.
Here is an ominous thought (did I use that word right, cuz?). The last time that the Caps had a backup goalie at any point in their season with as few games of experience as Pheonix Copley has was in 2013-2014, when Grubauer dressed for 17 games after coming into the season with only two games of experience in the NHL. And Grubauer wasn’t the backup to start the season. Michal Neuvirth was, but he was later traded to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak, who pushed Grubauer off the depth chart. Grubauer played only one game in the NHL after January 19th that season and lost his last five decisions (0-3-2) after January 9th. It makes one wonder if the Caps are going to go a fourth straight season using only two goaltenders.
- First NHL win (he is 0-1-0 in two appearances)
The Big Question… Is Pheonix Copley the answer to the backup goaltending situation?
Given the outsized role Philipp Grubauer played last season as a nominal backup – 15-10-3, 2.35, .923, with three shutouts in 35 appearances, many of which took place during Braden Holtby’s curious late-season slump – there will be considerable attention paid to how Copley fares coming out of the box as the new backup. His ability to fill the role with some measure of effectiveness might be the biggest issue that the Caps have as the season gets underway. And while his AHL numbers at Hershey over three seasons (43-26-14, 2.52, .913, with 5 shutouts) are not stunningly, jump off the page good, Braden Holtby was better, but not overwhelmingly so over four seasons in Hershey (74-45-7, 2.37, .918, with 14 shutouts).
It is hard coming into an established roster, and it is harder still to do so when that roster is coming off a Stanley Cup win. Add to that the reputation Philipp Grubauer took with him to Colorado as perhaps the best backup goaltender in the league over the last three seasons, and Copley has a challenge in front of him. And that is quite enough of a challenge for a goalie with only two games of NHL experience on his resume. If for whatever reason the Caps need a number one goalie for any length of time, one would have to think that Copley becomes the third option, behind giving prospect Ilya Samsonov a shot and going out into the trade/free agent market for a solution.
In the end…
The flip side of coming into a settled roster situation, except for the spot you are filling, is that everyone knows his role and has been successful in it. The new guy needs to tend only to his business without the distractions of an unsettled roster in front of him. And, with the Caps, having a number one goaltender as solid as Braden Holtby provides a certain level of expectations. While Holtby did appear in only 54 games last season – a career low since he became the Caps’ full-time number one netminder – one would expect he would return to appearing in 60-65 games, at a minimum, in 2017-2018.
The Caps’ situation is about as good as it gets for a young goaltender trying to establish himself as a bona fide NHL netminder, even if it is in a relief role. Pheonix Copley has served enough of an apprenticeship to earn himself a shot a fulfilling that relief role. But nothing is certain in that regard, and it is the most fascinating question as the Caps begin their Cup defense. Can Copley succeed in a limited role?
Projection: 20 games, 10-7-1, 2.66, .912