As each player took a knee on the ice in a semicircle around Todd Reirden, the Washington Capitals' head coach made an announcement that prompted cheers and stick taps. There were a few pats to goaltender Pheonix Copley’s head and pads. He had just been extended to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will begin next season, a significant commitment for someone who has just 21 games of NHL experience.
“It means a lot obviously," Copley said. “I’m excited, but my focus right now is on this year and doing what I can to have success for this team this year.”
“We like the person, we like his work ethic, we like the progress he’s made," General Manager Brian MacLellan said. "He continues to improve, he continues to work at his game, and I think the goalie coach really likes him and thinks there is upside still. He’s going to continue to get better, so we felt comfortable in committing to him.”
Copley’s deal now runs two years beyond No. 1 netminder Braden Holtby’s contract, which expires after next season, and the three-year term was partially done with the 2021 Seattle expansion draft in mind. Copley, 27, is now the third backup goaltender in the NHL to get a three-year extension in the past month, making him eligible to be exposed in the expansion draft because he would be under contract for the 2021-22 season. Minnesota’s Alex Stalock signed a three-year, $2.355 million deal Jan. 29, and Pittsburgh’s Casey DeSmith got a three-year, $3.75 million deal last month. (The 2017 Vegas expansion draft stipulated teams had to expose a goalie under contract for the next season.)
“That’s not the sole consideration, but it is one consideration," MacLellan said. "I think it’s important for an organization to have goaltending depth, guys who can come in and play. We’ve got a guy who looks like he’s going to solidify himself as a No. 2, and I don’t know what the upside is — we’ll find out — but it’s important for us to keep him in our organization.”
It’s also telling of the organization’s plan for its prospect goaltenders, namely Ilya Samsonov, a 2015 first-round pick. This is his first season in North America, and he is sharing the net with Vitek Vanecek, a 23-year-old 2014 second-round pick, in the American Hockey League. With Copley and Holtby now both under contract for next year, Samsonov will almost certainly spend at least one more season with the Capitals' affiliate in Hershey. With Copley locked up for three more years after this one, MacLellan arguably has the flexibility to flip one young goaltender for a different asset either before the Feb. 25 trade deadline or in the future.
MacLellan might also have to make a choice between re-signing Holtby after next season or committing to Samsonov at that point as the team’s future in net.
“It’ll work itself out, I think," MacLellan said. "We’ll see how Samsonov comes [along] and what our situation is cap-wise and the signings we determine to make. I think it’s a whole lot of things that go into what’s going to happen there.”
Said Holtby: “It’s human nature to think about it. But outside of maybes, you have no idea. It’s a long ways away. A goaltender’s life can change pretty quickly, so you’ve got to stay in the moment and just play. Play as hard as you can, play as well as you can. and everything else will sort itself out.”
Washington signed Copley as an undrafted free agent in 2014, then dealt him to the St. Louis Blues in the trade for T.J. Oshie in 2015 before getting him back in a different trade before the 2017 trade deadline. After Philipp Grubauer was moved to the Colorado Avalanche in June, the backup goaltending job this season was Copley’s by default.
While he might have been an unknown commodity at the start of the year with just one NHL start, he’s acquitted himself better than expected. He’s 10-5-3 in 19 appearances, and while his past few outings have been rocky — he allowed seven goals against Nashville last month in what was his second game in as many nights because Holtby was injured — the Capitals have been happy with his total body of work, confident there will be more of that in the future.
“A lot of it’s adjusting to the speed and the little changes from league to league,” Copley said. "Anytime you go into a new league, you kind of get your confidence, and that comes with time and games. I think that the more I play in this league, the more confident and better I’ll be.”
Reirden praised Copley and acknowledged the work required for him to reach this moment.
“I think it’s a great story. I think it’s one of a player who came into training camp with something to prove and an opportunity in front of him," Reirden said. "He is one of our most respected guys in our locker room for his work ethic and how he goes about his business. To me, this is great for our culture as a team and how we want to continue to move forward here in the next few years with surrounding our players with people like that.”