Heading into the playoffs, one advantage the Capitals have is two starting-caliber goalies on the roster in Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.
Considering how many teams struggle to find just one, having two is a luxury not seen too often in today’s NHL.
“I think we're in a good situation here,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday in a sitdown with the media. “Holtby's been one of the top goalies in the league over the last four years, a Vezina winner. And Grubauer's solidifying himself. Since November, he's been one of the best goalies in the league. I think we're in a good spot here where we have two goalies that are playing well and the coaching staff has options to play. I don't think they can go wrong choosing either way.”
As good as Grubauer has been, few would have predicted he would have the type of impact he has had this season.
Guess it’s a good thing he’s still in Washington since for a while it did not look like he would be.
Let’s turn the clocks back to the offseason. With the Vegas Golden Knights preparing for its first season in the league, the NHL held an expansion draft. Teams were given a limited number of players they could protect, but every team was guaranteed to lose one player.
With only one protected slot allotted for goaltenders, the Capitals of course protected Holtby, the 27-year-old Vezina Trophy winner who had just completed his third consecutive 40-win season. That left Grubauer exposed.
In the 2016-17 season, Grubauer registered a 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage in 24 games played. At 25 years old, clearly this was a goalie with starting potential.
Typically, there are few assets in the NHL that carry as much value as a starting goalie. Grubauer looked like the perfect backup to a veteran like Marc-Andre Fleury who could pick up the torch when Fleury began to decline or a major asset Vegas could potentially flip to another goalie-desperate team in a trade.
But Vegas didn’t bite. Instead, the Golden Knights took defenseman Nate Schmidt.
MacLellan attempted to work out a trade with McPhee to keep Schmidt in Washington, but with teams like Columbus throwing a first and a second-round draft pick and David Clarkson in a package just so Vegas would select William Karlsson (who, by the way, went on to lead the Golden Knights in goals with 43), the asking price was too high and MacLellan had to walk away.
At the time, it seemed like a devastating blow. The Caps had only three top-four defensemen without Schmidt, but they already had a goalie. One possible solution was to find a trade partner and trade Grubauer for defensive help, but that did not happen either. No one apparently saw the same potential in Grubauer that the Caps did.
“I think we have had Grubauer valued more than the league has had,” MacLellan said. “So that's been kind of an issue, where we feel he was going to be a good No. 1 goalie. And the rest of the league, in general, say that he hasn't had time to prove it.”
So while teams went out and signed goalies like Steve Mason and Brian Elliott in free agency and Vegas took its new toys including Schmidt and began assembling a roster, the Capitals were caught with a hole on defense and a second goalie they couldn’t move.
History, however, has been kind to Washington.
Grubauer played a vital role for the Capitals this season playing in 35 games with a .923 save percentage and 2.35 GAA. When Holtby suffered a late-season swoon in February and March, Grubauer took over so Holtby could re-set. He started 10 of the team’s last 16 games and won seven of them. His play of late has been spectacular and on Tuesday he was named the starter for Game 1 heading into the playoffs.
Granted, there is a case to be made saying that if the Caps had kept Nate Schmidt, the defense would have been better and perhaps Holtby would not have struggled as a result. But that would have likely meant promoting Pheonix Copley as the team's backup. Copley, however, struggled immensely at the start of this season in Hershey. Had the Caps elected to promote him, trust in Copley would have eroded, potentially leading the team to overworking Holtby in much the same way he was in the 2014-15 season, when he played in 73 games with Justin Peters as the backup.
The point is, we can't say definitively if the Caps would have been better off with Schmidt instead of Grubauer.
What we can say, however, is that even with the loss of Schmidt, the expansion draft seems to have worked out pretty darn well for Washington.
“It would have been tough to call that one,” MacLellan said. “We didn't want to lose Grubauer either in the expansion draft because we valued him highly. Obviously, it's worked out for us because we've had to use him for the season. We'll see what happens here going forward.”