Throughout the summer and the season, it has been assumed by many that the Caps hold a rather large trade chip in goalie Philipp Grubauer.
Washington has a Vezina-caliber starter in Braden Holtby who, at 28, is still in his prime. The team also has a future starter in Ilya Samsonov who is considered one of the best goaltending prospects in the world.
At 26, Grubauer wants to be a starting goalie somewhere and given his impressive 2016-17 campaign, he certainly looks like he is ready to take that step. Starting goaltending can be hard to find so it would not be surprising to see a team in need jump at the chance to trade for a budding starter.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins may make the Caps think twice about shopping Grubauer.
While staring goalies can be hard to find, the situation in Pittsburgh may have taught teams another important lesson: consistent backup goaltending can also be hard to find and it may prove just as critical to a team’s success.
Matt Murray was drafted by the Penguins in 2012 and groomed to become the future starter behind Marc-Andre Fleury. In 2015-16, he played in 13 regular season games as the backup. When Fleury suffered a concussion on April 2 just before the playoffs, Murray was forced to take over as the starter that postseason. It was not an ideal situation, but it worked out for Pittsburgh as Murray started 21 games and led the team to a Stanley Cup.
Last season, the Penguins utilized both Fleury and Murray as a goalie tandem with Fleury getting 34 starts and Murray getting 47. This time, it was Murray who went down with an injury while warming up for Game 1 of the first round. Fleury started 15 games that postseason until Murray was able to return and helped guide the Penguins through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Where would the Penguins have been without their goalie tandem? Probably not hoisting the Stanley Cup in either season.
But the issue with Pittsburgh’s story is the fact that having two goalies of Fleury and Murray’s caliber on the roster is a luxury few teams can afford. Washington entered the 2017-18 season with a much thinner roster than in years past due to salary cap constraints. While keeping Grubauer would be ideal, it seems clear with Holtby and Samsonov in tow that his future as a starter will be somewhere other than in Washington. Surely that makes his value to the team higher as a trade asset, right?
Perhaps…if the Penguins did not recently provide yet another example of why having a backup like Grubauer is important.
Pittsburgh lost Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights over the summer in the expansion draft. As the full-time starter, Murray’s numbers this season have been the worst of his career (2.95 GAA, .906 save percentage). The Penguins also struggled initially to find a backup for him. Antti Niemi did not even last a month into the season before he was placed on waivers. Pittsburgh seems to have settled on Tristan Jarry for now, but the team’s goaltending situation is in flux with Murray is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.
Murray is considered week-to-week so it is not as if his season is over, but the Penguins’ goalie saga does provide a cautionary tale.
Where would the Caps be if, hypothetically, the team traded Grubauer and Holtby suffered an injury?
Granted, that possibility was always there. It is not as if Murray is the first starting goalie to ever suffer an injury, but seeing something happen can often resonate more than just knowing that it could.
For all those armchair GMs trying to figure out possible trade partners for Grubauer, you may want to think twice. Seeing the situation that is unfolding in Pittsburgh is a stark reminder of the dangers of relying so much on just one goalie.