Growing up in Germany, those tapes were Grubauer’s only connection to the NHL, so Richter and Potvin became his inspirations by default. But as he got older, he started to follow Olaf Kolzig’s career, idolizing the fellow German. That connection made it all the more special when the Washington Capitals drafted him, allowing Grubauer to follow in Kolzig’s footsteps his former team.
In his second full season as an NHL backup, Grubauer has started to establish himself as one of the most promising young goaltenders, fueling speculation he might be swiped by the Vegas Golden Knights in this summer’s expansion draft. In the meantime, his .925 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average in 19 games has given the Capitals a good option in goal even on the nights Braden Holtby rests. That’ll be especially important with three sets of back-to-back games remaining in the season and the team looking to keep its first-place position in a tight Metropolitan Division.
Equally important for Grubauer is serving as a good ambassador for German hockey with so few players from that country succeeding in the professional ranks.
“I think that every time a player makes it to the NHL from Germany, it’s a big step for German hockey,” Grubauer said. “Every time you step on the ice, for me personally, you not only represent the Washington Capitals, you represent your hometown or your country. I want to be an idol for those kids back home.”
Grubauer is one of just seven German players in the NHL, and he and Thomas Greiss of the New York Islanders are the only goaltenders. The country’s passion is soccer, but Grubauer found the sport boring and wanted to do something different from his friends, so his mother would take him skating on the pond in his hometown of Rosenheim. Because hockey opportunities in Germany can be limited, when Grubauer was 17, he moved to Canada to play for the Ontario Hockey League, and he now worries it’s even harder for Germans to get noticed by NHL scouts because European goaltenders are no longer allowed to play for Canadian junior teams.
Kolzig wasn’t born and raised in Germany like Grubauer, and he estimated that he lived in Germany for all of six months when he was 2 years old before growing up in Canada with a German passport. But Grubauer was still star-struck when he met him at his first development camp with Washington.
“At first, he’s a very quiet, stoic, serious guy, so that’s all I took it for,” Kolzig said.
“I was like ‘Oh my God,’” Grubauer said. “He was one of my idols. I watched him for so many years, all of the highlights. And then he’s standing there and actually going on the ice with me. That was pretty cool and pretty special. I don’t remember what we talked about. I think he said a couple words in German, and that was it.”
It was representing Germany in August that contributed to Grubauer having a strong season. He won three games in an international qualifying tournament to help the Germans clinch a berth in the 2018 Olympics, and shortly after, Denmark’s Frederik Andersen got hurt, which led to Grubauer serving as his replacement on Team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey. The busy summer was good for him, and so was the condensed NHL schedule that naturally provided more opportunities for Grubauer to play with shorter breaks in between starts.
“He’s way tighter; he shifts or moves his body in position to get hit with the puck, rather than reaching, way better,” goaltending coach Mitch Korn said.
His continued growth however may mean he’ll soon outgrow the backup role with the Capitals, and he’ll likely have to move on from Washington because Holtby is the organization’s long-term answer in net. Grubauer has heard the speculation that the Las Vegas franchise could be interested in drafting him, but no matter where he plays next season, he’s hopeful this year went a long way to proving he’s capable of being an everyday starter in the not-so-distant future.
“I’m just glad that Grubi is getting recognized a lot more this year,” Kolzig said. “Unfortunately, it’s at a bad time because of the expansion draft in June, so there’s a pretty strong possibility that we could lose him.”
Said Grubauer: “We’ll see what’s going to happen down the road here in the summer with the new team, but I’m not looking past today or tomorrow. We’re here to win the Stanley Cup, we’re here to accomplish something, and I’m not going to look ahead at what’s going to happen in the summer.”