A transition period accompanies most traded players, needing to adjust to new teammates, coaches and surroundings. But once the shock of being dealt midseason wore off for goaltender Pheonix Copley, he knew it wouldn’t be hard to quickly fit into his new team. He had played there just two years earlier.
When the Washington Capitals traded for forward T.J. Oshie in 2015, Copley was involved in the deal, going from Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate to St. Louis’s. As the Capitals were recently negotiating another big deal with the Blues, this time for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, General Manager Brian MacLellan asked that Copley be involved again.
The addition of Copley fills Washington’s immediate need for a No. 3 goaltender, insurance in case there’s an injury to Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer, and it also gives the Capitals a familiar potential option for the future. With Grubauer having a strong season (10-6-2 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.10 goals against average) and a pending restricted free agent, he could be of interest to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.
If Grubauer were indeed drafted by Las Vegas, then Washington may not have to look far for a replacement backup goaltender. Copley is a pending unrestricted free agent and is open to re-signing with Washington if the opportunity presents itself.
“Obviously, I like it here,” Copley said. “It’s been beneficial working with the goalie coaches here for me, so absolutely.”
Since trading away Copley, the Capitals have been thin on organizational goaltending depth because Ilya Samsonov, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, is still playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. With the organization underwhelmed with the results of the goaltending tandem in Hershey, it acquired Copley to play alongside Vitek Vanecek, a 2014 draft pick in his first AHL season. Vanecek, at 21 years old, is still developing and not yet ready for NHL duty.
In his six games with the Bears, Copley is 5-1-0 with a 1.91 goals against average and a .942 save percentage.
“I don’t think there’s a lot really different about him in the last two years other than the normal growth that a prospect goes through, where he got a chance to continue to play games, continue to grow, continue to find his game and continue to mature,” goaltending coach Mitch Korn said. “It’s extremely difficult to get goaltending in this era, especially to help your American League team and to provide depth for your National League team. The hardest position to get is a No. 3 guy.”
Asked whether Copley is an option for the Capitals to re-sign, Korn said, “I would hope so.” It was Korn and associate goalie coach Scott Murray who helped develop Copley from an undrafted college free agent signing out of Michigan Tech to a desirable piece in the trade for Oshie two years ago. Copley said the Capitals are more “hands on” in their approach to coaching the organization’s goaltenders because Korn and/or Murray are almost always around.
With the Blues organization, Copley continued to work on his ability to read plays and shots, making sure his body is “in control and not opening up and creating holes.” He has also monitored the NHL success of Grubauer, someone he once shared the net with in Hershey, and that’s additional reassurance that Copley could potentially experience similar growth under Korn and Murray’s tutelage.
“I feel like my game has adapted a little bit better to the pro level since I was first here,” Copley said. “It was my first year in college, so there was still a phase of transition into the pro game, and I think over the last couple years, I’ve kind of smoothed out some wrinkles and kind of adapted to the pro game a little bit better. Scotty is still working with me on that, so it’s nice to pick up where we left off with Scotty and keep getting better.”