"They also serve who only stand and wait."
-- John Milton
One could make an argument that the most difficult shoes to fill on the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals was backup goaltender. For three consecutive seasons, Philipp Grubauer filled that role so reliably that he and Braden Holtby were the only goaltenders the Caps employed. In those three seasons, Grubauer had a 36-25-6 record, a 2.25 goals against average (better than Holtby’s 2.39), a .923 save percentage (better than Holtby’s .918) and six shutouts (half of Holtby’s total despite playing in less than half as many minutes, 4,240 to 10,589). He was so capable that he was named the starting goaltender to open the Caps’ 2018 postseason. Grubauer played two games, watched the rest from the bench, and then he was off to Colorado as an unrestricted free agent.
Enter Pheonix Copley. He is something of a rare breed in Washington. Since 2005, the Caps have drafted 11 goaltenders, four of whom started 659 of the 838 games played since the first of them (Semyon Varlamov) played his first NHL game in December 2008. Copley, on the other hand, was an undrafted free agent signed by the Caps in March 2014 after completing his second season with the Michigan Tech Huskies in the NCAA. Sixteen months later, after 35 regular and postseason games with South Carolina and Hershey in the minor league system, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues with Troy Brouwer and a 2016 third round draft pick for T.J. Oshie. Playing only two games for the Blues, he made his way back to Washington as part of a blockbuster deal at the 2017 trading deadline with the St. Louis that also snared defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
After laboring with the Hershey Bears for the remainder of the 2016-2017 season and for the full 2017-2018 season, he got his chance with the big club when Grubauer left. It took him three weeks to get his first win with the Caps, in his third appearance, but he still had a solid start, going 9-2-1 (one no-decision), 2.61, .914, and his first NHL shutout over his first 13 games. He hit a skid at that point, going 1-3-2, 3.82, .877, in six games before finishing his season 6-2-0, 2.74, .908 in his last eight appearances.
Fearless’ Take… Despite the fact that he started fewer games (24) this season than Philipp Grubauer started last season (28) and appeared in fewer games overall (27) than did Grubauer (35), Pheonix Copley finished the season with more wins (16) than Grubauer had last season (15). Grubauer had better underlying numbers (2.35 goals against average, .923 save percentage) than Copley (2.90, .905), but a backup goalie has to give his team a chance to win when he is spelling the number one netminder. Copley did that, and his numbers resembled those of Braden Holtby in 2017-2018 (2.99, .907).
Cheerless’ Take… Those performance numbers are sort of iffy. Looking at principal backups since 2007-2008, when the Caps reached the playoffs for the first time since the rebuild, Pheonix Copley had the third-worst save percentage (.905, topping onl Michal Neuvirth’s .903 in 2011-2012 and Justin Peters’ .881 in 2014-2015), and his 2.90 goals against average was only better than Peters’ 3.25 in 2014-2015.
Odd Copley Fact… Pheonix Copley is the first goaltender born in Alaska to reach the NHL. Ty Conklin, who played in 215 games from 2002-2012, was raised in Alaska but was born in Phoenix, Arizona. Odd irony, that.
Game to Remember… December 22nd at Ottawa
As the schedule moved toward the Christmas break, Pheonix Copley, a native of North Pole, Alaska, was providing good, if not quite outstanding backup work. In 11 appearances heading into the last game before the break, he was 7-2-1, 2.93, .902, and he had a save percentage over .900 only once in his most recent four appearances. He got the call in Ottawa against the Senators in that last game before the break, hardly surprising given that eight of his first 11 appearances came in road games, and the Caps were playing the back half of a back-to-back set of games.
The Caps staked Copley to an early lead, Brett Connolly scoring just 92 seconds into the contest. But Copley did his part to hold that lead, turning aside all 13 shots he faced in the first period, including a flurry of stops late in the period before the Caps added another goal to take a 2-0 lead to the first intermission. While Jakub Vrana and Matt Niskanen were scoring goals less than five minutes apart mid-way through the second period, Copley was keeping his own net clear of pucks, stopping 12 shots in the middle period. Washington did not score in the third period, but they did not have to. Copley stopped all 10 shots he faced to make it 35-for-35 in posting his first NHL shutout in a 4-0 Capitals win.
Game to Forget… October 11th at New Jersey
First game with the new club, you want to make a good impression. Pheonix Copley did that early on against the New Jersey Devils in the Caps’ fourth game of the season, stopping a point-blank one-timer from Pavel Zacha in the seventh minute of a scoreless game. It would be the high point of Copley’s game, though. Peppered with 13 shots in the first period, he allowed two goals, leaving the Caps in a hole out of which they would not dig. He kept the Caps in at least a hopeful mood in stopping 11 of 12 shots in the second period, but Copley withered under the barrage in the third, giving up three goals on 11 shots in a 6-0 loss. It was a goal total that the Devils would top only once over the rest of the season, potting eight in an 8-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in January.
Postseason… Copley did not log any minutes in the postseason.
Looking ahead… The Caps thought enough of Pheonix Copley’s performance over his first 19 appearances through the end of January (10-5-3, 2.98, .903) to sign him to a three-year/$3.3 million contract extension in early February that carries through the 2021-2022 season. No goaltender in the Capitals system is on board for a longer period of time at the moment. Current number one netminder Braden Holtby is entering the “walk year” of his current contract before unrestricted free agency, and minor leaguer Vitek Vanecek is an unrestricted free agent at the moment. Prospect and presumed number one goalie in waiting Ilya Samsonov is signed through the 2020-2021 season on his entry level contract. The Capitals, who have made a habit of having options among their goaltenders in the last decade, have a lot of moving parts at the position, but for the moment they have stability at the backup spot in Copley as Samsonov continues his development.
In the end…
Pheonix Copley was the beneficiary of good goal support; he was 7-4-0 in the 12 starts (one no-decision) in which he allowed three or more goals. And, the 2018 portion of his season (9-2-1, 2.62, .914, with one shutout) was better than the 2019 portion of his season (7-5-2, 3.17, .896). He has succeeded, if not replaced Philipp Grubauer as the Caps’ backup goalie. And, having only one year as the full-time backup, he has not yet demonstrated that he can shoulder an extended load. His longest streak of consecutive starts this season was four, back in November. He won two of the first three in that set, posting a .922 save percentage, but he faltered in the fourth start, allowing four goals on 22 shots, the last three of them coming in a span of 75 seconds early in the second period in Montreal on November 19th, ending his evening after 21:35 of work (the Caps came back to win that game in overtime, 5-4).
While winning does count for something, and Copley did his share of it as a backup, his performance suggests that there are still improvements to be made. By the same token Copley suffers comparisons with his predecessor in this role, Philipp Grubauer, who might have been the best backup in the league over his last three seasons in Washington. He was almost certainly that in his last season with the Caps. Copley has come a long way from being an undrafted free agent who was traded, and then brought back to the club. But there is still some way to go to provide comfort to the club that he is up to the task over the next three seasons.