It was mid-June, and Philipp Grubauer was at his condo in Italy, anxious. The expansion draft had just started, and the sense all season had been that the Vegas Golden Knights’ selection from the Washington Capitals would be Grubauer or defenseman Nate Schmidt. He was unsure whether he needed to renew the lease on his apartment in Washington, so he was constantly on the phone with his agent to find out the latest news.
Then came a call from Schmidt. He was Vegas’s choice, which meant Grubauer would be returning to Washington for another season as Braden Holtby’s understudy in goal.
“I wasn’t disappointed at all because I knew I belonged to Washington for the next two years — this year and next year at least, until I turn into [an unrestricted] free agent,” Grubauer said. “But it also would’ve been nice to fight for a starting position. Not that I can’t do that here, but it’s a little bit different here having the most consistent goalie in the league [in Holtby].”
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan recently traveled to Russia to have dinner with top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov, a 2015 first-round pick. The purpose of the trip was twofold: to show Samsonov how valued he is by the organization and to come to a verbal agreement of sorts that, once his Kontinental Hockey League contract expires in late April, Samsonov will sign with Washington and play in North America next season. According to a source, MacLellan was successful on both fronts; with Samsonov’s pending arrival, it’s looking more likely that this could be Grubauer’s last season with the Capitals.
After Washington signed Grubauer to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in the offseason, he will be a restricted free agent again this summer, but the team is in no rush to deal him. Across the NHL, quality backup goaltending has been hard to find, and though the team has Pheonix Copley in the American Hockey League, he is coming off a groin injury and hasn’t had the strongest start to the season: 6-6-2 with a 3.35 goals against average and an .882 save percentage. The trade return for goaltenders has historically been a mixed bag, especially in the case of a relatively unproven one such as Grubauer. While the Capitals and roughly half the teams in the NHL believe he is a future No. 1 goalie, the other half isn’t so sure.
Meanwhile, Grubauer is well aware that with Holtby, a Vezina Trophy winner in 2015-16 and a finalist again last season, under contract through 2019-20, his opportunity to become a top netminder will almost certainly have to come with another team.
“I’m just going to play my game and focus on the games right now,” Grubauer said. “Those things I can’t control. It’s up to the guys upstairs. I play my game and do my best on the ice, and it’s all I can worry about. Everything else will take care of itself.”
The Capitals have a history of strong goaltending depth. They traded Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche in 2011, when he was a 23-year-old restricted free agent. The return was impressive: 2012 first- and second-round picks that turned into now-Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg and helped the Capitals land Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars. But recent deals involving goaltenders haven’t always involved such strong returns.
After three solid years as the Chicago Blackhawks’ backup, Scott Darling was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for a third-round pick in April; Darling was a late-bloomer, already 28 at the time of the trade. A 23-year-old Robin Lehner was dealt to Buffalo for the 21st pick in 2015, but the Sabres also had to take David Legwand and his $3.5 million salary-cap hit in the deal with Ottawa. When the New York Rangers traded Cam Talbot, then 27, to the Oilers, they fetched the 57th, 79th and 184th picks in 2015, perhaps less than what was expected for a goaltender Edmonton made its starter. The Boston Bruins got a 2016 first-round pick from San Jose for 25-year-old Martin Jones, Jonathan Quick’s backup in Los Angeles for two years.
Grubauer is 26, and he has 78 games of NHL experience — more than Darling, Talbot and Jones at the time they were traded. Over his career, he is 30-26-10 with a .919 save percentage and a 2.37 goals against average. Grubauer has always had a strong Capitals team in front of him, though his subpar statistics this season — 2-5-2 with an .898 save percentage and a 2.98 goals against average — might not fairly depict how well he has played for a team that has been struggling in the second game of back-to-back sets, when Grubauer typically starts.
The 2018 unrestricted free agent goaltender class lacks star power; 28-year-old Aaron Dell might be the prize with a .935 save percentage and a 1.94 goals against average in 13 appearances with San Jose this season. That might mean another stressful summer for Grubauer with Washington’s organizational goaltending depth getting crowded and the backup ready for more responsibility.
“I’m happy to stay here for another year,” he said. “But the whole game starts again this summer. It’s going to be the same thing this summer again.”
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