Philipp Grubauer’s 6-foot frame appeared to occupy less space than usual as he stood in front of the net during the Washington Capitals’ development camp session on Tuesday. A five-month fight with mononucleosis can have that effect on the body. The German goalie prospect, originally listed at 180 pounds, shed 20 pounds during a battle with the virus that kept him off the ice dating from February.
“I’m getting better every day,” said Grubauer, who added that the first 10 minutes of practice on Monday were the toughest since his return. “I felt better [Tuesday] just getting back into it.”
Grubauer, 19, practiced for two days before participating in this week’s camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. During sprints at the end of practice, he showed signs of fatigue, but has regained enough wind to impress the coaching staff on his way to gradually working back to full strength.
“For me it was first-hand seeing him out here,” said Olie Kolzig, Washington’s associate goalie coach and former netminder. “Just seeing him do what he did not being on the ice that long is pretty impressive.”
Grubauer, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, played in 38 games for the Kingston Frontenacs (Ontario Hockey League) last season. He finished with a .903 save percentage and two shutouts. The future is bright for Grubauer, who has won the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup. He is farther along in his development than Michal Neuvirth and former Capital Semyon Varlamov were at this point in their careers, goaltender coach Dave Prior said.
“He’s high on my expectations to be a Capitals goaltender some day,” said Prior, who said he called Grubauer several times to check in while the goalie was sick. “Philipp does things effortlessly — things that Olie only wishes he could do when he played. . . . That’s the talent that not everybody is lucky enough to be equipped with. He also stays between the puck and the net instinctively.”
Grubauer is likely the next prospect to see NHL time behind 21-year-old Braden Holtby.
Grubauer’s debut with the Capitals likely won’t happen this season, though, given the organization’s offseason transactions. Washington traded Varlamov to Colorado for two draft picks and signed veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one-year, $1.5 million deal at the beginning of the month.
In the meantime, Grubauer is expected to continue his development with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, where he will play more minutes than he would with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.
“If nothing’s stopping Phillip from expediting his career, if he’s in the NHL in four years playing some games, or three years, when as a call-up due to injury, that’s great,” Prior said. “If he’s there before then, it’s really pleasing.”
Grubauer is lighter on his feet after the mononucleosis, but has shown this week that he is just as strong on the ice as he was before the illness. He participated in scrimmages Wednesday and Thursday, proving he didn’t lose any of his reflexes from the layoff while recording a few nice saves to elicit cheers from the crowd.
“The one thing I really liked about him, and I was telling Dave and Olie that he looked like — I don’t want to compare him to anybody — but the way he smothered the puck like Michal Neuvirth,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said Wednesday. “When Michal is on, how he just absorbs it, was Olie’s words, and [Grubauer] did that three times. When young guys can control the rebounds, I think it’s a big stepping stone in the right direction.”
For Grubauer, this year has been a learning experience, one that is part of his natural maturation toward one day possibly making an impact for the Capitals whenever his name is called.
“In goaltending, you learn from every situation,” Prior said. “Whether it’s injury, illness sitting on the bench, playing all the time. You have to keep building that knowledge of what it’s like and how you deal with it. He’s quite comfortable for whatever we assign him to and I expect him to do a great job.”