“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”
When Washington Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer was 15 years old, he played six games for the Starbulls Rosenheim Jr. club in Germany and had a goals against average of 8.31. Come October 10th, he will be on the bench for the Capitals, a goaltender capable of productive minutes in the NHL, as his 20 games of NHL experience to date demonstrates.
In between, Grubauer has moved along, step by step, graduating to the Starbulls Rosenheim before moving on to the Ontario Hockey League, from which he was drafted by the Caps in 2010 (fourth round/112th overall). He would play for three different teams in the OHL, with a couple of appearances in international tournaments along the way, before joining the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL in 2011. A 23-win season later, he split time between the ECHL’s Reading Royals and the AHL Hershey Bears in 2012-2013, and even got a cup o’ coffee with the Caps (two games) that season. Grubauer split his time between Hershey (28 games) and Washington (17 games) in 2013-2014.
With the Caps signing Justin Peters to fill the backup goaltending role to Braden Holtby last season, the idea was for Grubauer to be the number one netminder in Hershey for a full season. He went 27-17-5, 2.30, .921, with six shutouts. His 27 wins ranked third in the AHL, his save percentage ranked ninth, his goals against average was 12th, and he finished tied for third in shutouts.
However, it was a playoff game he did not play with the Bears that might have clinched his opportunity to serve as the full-time backup to Braden Holtby this season. Holtby was ill before Game 1 against the New York Islanders, but he played in a 4-1 Capitals defeat. He could not answer the bell in Game 2, though. In jeopardy of going down to an 0-2 deficit at home, Grubauer got the call for what would be his first NHL playoff game. He allowed an early goal by Cal Clutterbuck on a perfectly place shot over his left shoulder and under the crossbar, then allowed a second period goal to Ryan Strome through a maze of players in front. The clubs exchanged goals mid-way through the period, but for the Islanders there would be no more. Grubauer stopped the last eight shots he faced while the Caps clawed their way back to tie the game early in the third period, then won it on a goal by Jason Chimera. Grubauer’s line was not particularly impressive overall (18 saves on 21 shots), but he was sturdy late, and instead of going to Long Island down a pair of games, the Caps got their legs under them, going on to win the series in seven games. It was among the most important wins of the season for the Caps.
Odd thing about Grubauer; his save percentage has improved at each stop. Is was .862 in the OHL, .916 in the ECHL, .919 in the AHL, and .924 in 20 regular season games so far with the Caps. He was the ninth goaltender taken in the 2010 draft and has appeared in almost as many NHL regular season games as all those taken ahead of him (21). Only Calvin Pickard (16 games so far, taken in the second round/49th overall by Colorado) has a better career save percentage to date among 2010-drafted goalies (.932 to Grubauer’s .924). And here is your obscure Grubauer fact… Of 134 goaltenders playing at least 350 minutes at 5-on-5 in tied-game situations over the last three seasons, he has the seventh-best high-danger save percentage (.900, numbers from war-on-ice.com).
OK, cuz, here’s a not so obscure Grubauer fact… 4-7, 3.54, .901. That’s his postseason record with Hershey over two playoff years (2013, 2015). You might have liked to see better numbers for a guy who was to get number one postseason minutes and who was being groomed to be at the very least a reasonable backup for Braden Holtby.
The Big Question… Is Philipp Grubauer the best available option to be Washington’ backup goaltender?
There are other ways one can frame this question? Can he avoid being a liability if he gets 20-25 appearances? Can he serve as a credible number one goalie if Holtby slumps or gets nicked up? Can he inspire confidence in the players in front of him? Twenty games of NHL experience is not a large population of games from which to draw conclusions. However, there is little left for Grubauer to prove at Hershey.
On the other hand, the Caps do have some insurance in Justin Peters (who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery over the summer) and free agent signing Dan Ellis. Between them they have 292 games of regular season experience. In that respect, it might be more accurate to say that Grubauer will be given every opportunity to demonstrate that the next rung on the developmental ladder – backup goaltender – is one he can reliably fill.
In the end…
Philipp Grubauer has the potential to be another overachieving draft pick at the goaltending position for the Caps, relative to his draft position. Both he and Braden Hotlby are former fourth round picks, made two seasons apart by the Capitals. If anything, his advancement has been more rapid (105 regular season games in junior to 177 for Holtby, 97 games in minor professional leagues to 144 for Holltby).
What he has not yet had is the “ah-HA” moment that establishes him as a player with true potential to assume number one goaltending minutes. Holtby had that moment in the 2012 playoffs when posted a sub-2.00 goals against average and a .930-plus save percentage in 14 games. What the Caps and their fans would prefer is that he not have so much an “ah-HA” moment (Holtby’s came as a product of injuries to goalies ahead of him on the depth chart) as sure, steady progress in learning his craft. That would be quite enough, for the time being, for the only graduate of Starbulls Rosenheim Jr. to reach the NHL.
Projection: 21 games, 10-6-2, 2.40, .920
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America