Trade discussions involving Philipp Grubauer ultimately ended over a difference of opinion. The Washington Capitals were confident he would be a No. 1 goaltender for a team that didn’t already have Braden Holtby, a Vezina Trophy finalist the past two years and the 2016 winner of the award recognizing the NHL’s best netminder. But other teams weren’t as sure as Washington.
“The rest of the league, in general, [said] that he hasn’t had time to prove it,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “Now he has.”
As Holtby struggled in the second half of the season, Grubauer has quietly been the best goaltender in the league since late November, when he recorded his first win of the season after an 0-5-1 start. In his past 27 appearances, he has a .937 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average with three shutouts. Since the start of March, he has started 10 games with a 7-3-0 record, appearing in net more often than Holtby. Coach Barry Trotz declined to discuss who he will start in the postseason, but that Grubauer could now be the No. 1 goaltender on a team with Holtby is the culmination of years in which he patiently proved himself.
“He’s playing with confidence,” MacLellan said. “He’s quiet in the net.”
He used to be quiet out of it, too. Grubauer was the rare German youngster who chose hockey — all but one of his friends played soccer. While fields to kick around a ball were readily available, Grubauer lived in the mountains, driving 30 minutes into the city every day to get to a rink. He was talented enough that he was playing professionally in Germany at 14, surrounded by older players. At an under-17 world championships tournament in Ontario, Grubauer watched a Canadian junior game between the London Knights and the Sarnia Sting on television. He was amazed by the sold-out crowd, and with so few Germans ever making it to the NHL, he started to see a potential path for himself. He promised his parents he would finish school at 15, and then he joined the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls for the 2008-09 season.
Grubauer had studied English back home, but the language was still a struggle. The first month, he was silent, listening to his teammates babble around him. He would spend hours watching Canadian shows and every hockey game that was televised so he could follow along with the commentary. “I picked it up pretty fast,” Grubauer said.
“My first impression? A little kid from Germany who couldn’t speak English whatsoever and he was a little bit shy,” said Sebastien Farrese, Belleville’s goaltending coach at the time.
Grubauer played just 17 games that first season with Belleville, the backup goaltender to Mike Murphy, who had recently been drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes. But Farrese saw the same qualities in a teenage Grubauer that has earned respect from his Capitals teammates a decade later. The NHL game days that Grubauer isn’t starting, he’s the one forwards are shooting on in morning skate. “The forwards don’t exactly shoot very low, so, he’s taken them off the shoulder, some off the head, and he never complains,” forward T.J. Oshie said. In Belleville, Farrese helped Grubauer tweak his “unorthodox” style to make it more North American-friendly, more butterfly and less reliant on his reflexes.
“He was always ready to work a little bit extra on the ice, always asking questions, even if he was shy,” Farrese said. “He had a goal in his mind to play more and more games. The second year we had together, it was his NHL draft year, and he wanted to get drafted.”
Grubauer dealt with doubters then, too, as he was once told, “The only reason you won’t make it to the league is because you’re small.” He was about two inches short of the 6-foot-4 goaltender trend at the time. He ignored that and made up for his height with his athleticism and poise in net.
“I look at other guys sometimes, and they’re 6-4 or whatever and they can barely move,” Grubauer said. “Thank god I’m not that tall.”
“He took a lot of space in the net,” Farrese said. “Because he was patient, he didn’t show a lot of net behind him.”
He was then asked to be patient off the ice. Grubauer played in 31 games before being traded to the Windsor Spitfires, appearing in 19 games as he helped that team to a Memorial Cup championship in 2010. The Capitals drafted him in the fourth round that summer, beginning a slow eight-year journey as he worked his way up from Washington’s ECHL affiliate in South Carolina to the American Hockey League to being Holtby’s backup the past three years. There was speculation that he would be swiped in the Vegas expansion draft last summer, but the Golden Knights instead selected defenseman Nate Schmidt. He was a potential trade chip, but a deal never materialized because the Capitals thought he was being valued too low. When Holtby went 2-5-2 in February, Washington started to play Grubauer more.
“I’d be lying if I said I thought he’d be as good as he is now,” said New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall, Grubauer’s teammate in Windsor. “He was undersized, but he always played well in the big games. I remember that.”
It wouldn’t get much bigger than being named the Capitals’ starting goaltender for the playoffs.