Two years ago, when the Capitals hired Scott Murray to tend to the team’s netminders in Hershey, the 36-year-old goalie coach didn’t know a whole lot about Philipp Grubauer, a talented but raw goaltender who had just completed his first season in the AHL.
“When I first met Philipp he had a successful junior career and he was off to a good pro career,” Murray recalled. “He had a lot of physical skill. And over the past two years, with the help of Mitch (Korn), I’ve started to refine his game to make it a little more consistent.
“You saw if from his first year to last year, and you’ll see more of that this year as he continues to grow.”
Grubauer had a statement year in the AHL last season, setting career highs in games (49), wins (27), shutouts (6) and save percentage (.925). Now, two months from his 24th birthday, he seems poised to make this his first full season in the NHL as Braden Holtby’s backup goaltender. With Holtby turning 26 earlier this month it would give the Capitals one of the youngest goaltending tandems in the NHL.
But Murray believes Grubauer, who signed a two-year, one-way $1.5 million contract extension with the Capitals over the summer, is ready for the challenge.
“I think he made his game very consistent at that (AHL) level last year and when you play very consistent at the level you’re at you put yourself in a position to move up levels,” Murray said. “Hopefully, he continues that consistency. He’s made enough strides that when and if he’s called up he’s ready to do it on a consistent basis.”
From the start of training camp, Capitals coach Barry Trotz has termed the backup goaltending battle between Grubauer and Justin Peters as an open competition, saying earlier this week, “Let them fight it out.”
While Peters stopped all 15 shots he faced in Tuesday night’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins, Grubauer allowed one goal on 16 shots in regulation and was beaten on a 2-on-1 in overtime.
“I know I need to work hard every day, play good and make sure I’m ready on and off the ice,” Grubauer said. “I’m ready.”
Like Holtby and the other goaltenders in the Capitals organization, Grubauer has made adjustments to his game since Mitch Korn was hired to replace Olie Kolzig in the summer of 2014. Under Kolzig, Greubauer was asked to play deeper in his net so that he could react quicker to backdoor passes.
Under Korn and Murray, Grubauer has been asked to play more of a read-and-react style that requires more processing and predicting.
“Last year we simplified his position a little bit, getting him to really understand not just where the puck is but what’s going to happen with the puck. And we tightened him up a little bit. As the game gets tougher and tougher and goes from a shot game (in the AHL) to making it more dynamic for goalies (in the NHL) your upper body has to be very involved and being tight is an important factor.”
To that end, the lanky Grubauer was asked to make saves while cradling a medicine ball, one of the many teaching devices in Korn’s extensive bag of tricks. He’s also worked with reaction lights, screen boards and white pucks of different sizes.
“The more and more you do it, the more it comes automatically,” Grubauer said. “The wheel hasn’t been reinvented. I’ve seen much of it before. Not everybody uses white pucks, but I used white pucks before in Germany. It’s good for tracking pucks and the screen board is good, too.”
If there is one aspect of Grubauer’s game that needs refinement, Murray said, it is his puck handling skills.
“I think he’s really come a long way and having a guy like Braden Holtby to see and follow is a key factor,” Murray said. “He may not be as dynamic as Braden, but he’s really making the simple plays to increase the efficiency in how we break out of our zone.”