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How Vegas may have saved the Capitals' season by passing on Philipp Grubauer

How Vegas may have saved the Capitals' season by passing on Philipp Grubauer

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.”

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The 6 most important things Brian MacLellan said about new Caps acquisition Brenden Dillon

The 6 most important things Brian MacLellan said about new Caps acquisition Brenden Dillon

ARLINGTON, Va. --  While the Capitals were on the road, Brian MacLellan was hard at work and finalized a deal on Tuesday to bring San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon to Washington. On Wednesday he met with the media to talk about the newest Cap.

"He's got playoff experience, he's a veteran player, physicality, the ability to play with top-end guys, a good character guy," MacLellan said. "I think he'll add a lot of energy in our room and on the ice. He's a physical presence. He checked a lot of boxes for everything we thought we needed."

Here are the six most important things MacLellan said about Dillon.

Dillon may be a top-pair player

Dillon is certainly a top-four defenseman, but the Caps added a player they feel can play on the top pair.

"I think we move him around a little bit," MacLellan said. "He could play with [John Carlson], could play with [Dmitry Orlov]. He's played with two good guys in San Jose. I anticipate the coaches trying him at both spots and see what works best for us."

Todd Reirden echoed those thoughts after practice.

When asked if Dillon playing with Brent Burns made him a natural fit to play with Carlson on the top pair, Reirden said, "That's my first initial thought. That is a similar type of player for sure."

Either Kempny or Jensen is going to get bumped out of the top four

When you re-read MacLellan's comments on Dillon playing in the top four, he said he could play with either Carlson or Dmitry Orlov. Adding a player into the top four means taking someone out and, based on those comments, that player is either going to be Michal Kempny or Nick Jensen.

Dillon is not the solution for the team's problems on the right

Right defense has been an issue for the Caps this season, but it does not sound like the plan is to plug Dillon in on the right side.

MacLellan was asked if Dillon could play on his off-side and he gave a tepid endorsement.

"He could, yeah," MacLellan said. "I think he's played a little bit on the off-side, but Orly's had some experience playing on the off-side. There's a number of different combinations we could try."

Reirden was asked who would play the right if Dillon and Orlov played together, and he said it would be Orlov.

While both MacLellan and Reirden said it would be an option to try Dillon on the right, it did not sound like that was the long-term plan at all.

This was not a reaction trade

Washington has lost four of its last five games and is 11-11-0 since Dec. 23. The team suddenly no longer sits in first place in the Metropolitan Division and trails the Pittsburgh Penguins by a point in the standings. The Caps' recent struggles, however, did not influence this deal, at least according to MacLellan.

MacLellan stated twice that he would have made this deal "regardless because I think it's a great fit for us — I think his skillset and the group we do have. I think one of the things that's been frustrating for me is the play in front of our own net, the compete level in front of our own net, and this is something he brings to the table here. I think he does a great job in front of our net. So I think we addressed that through him."

It should be noted that MacLellan has previously stated he was only looking for depth at the trade deadline and now has acquired a player who may well end up playing on the team's top pair. If you take him at his word, however, MacLellan liked Dillon and liked the upgrade, and that's why this deal got done — not because of the team's current struggles.

Dillon's playoff experience is a major reason why he is now with Washington

Last season, MacLellan traded for a defenseman playing a significant role on a bad team in Nick Jensen. Jensen had zero playoff experience and that showed in the team's postseason series against the Carolina Hurricanes. This year, MacLellan elected to go a different route.

Dillon has 62 games of playoff experience under his belt and helped the San Jose Sharks reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 and the Western Conference Final in 2019.

MacLellan was asked how much that experience mattered to him, and he said, "A lot. A lot. I think he’s been in the final. He’s been on good teams, similar to us. I think San Jose and Washington had top teams for a long time and he’s been in that environment, so I think it’s a good fit.”

Physical play is still a major part of the team's identity

Dillon is not the type of player you go out an acquire if physicality is not a priority.

For the season, Dillon ranks ninth in the NHL with 178 hits. His acquisition means the Caps now have five of the top 21 hitters in the league.

"I think we're all attracted to size as long as it can play," MacLellan said. "We like having the big bodies and playing a heavier game, and he's a good skater for his size, too. He has that physical presence, and we're excited to see how it fits for us."

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Here's how you can score free Chipotle by wearing your Caps jersey Friday

Here's how you can score free Chipotle by wearing your Caps jersey Friday

Now's your chance to score some free Chipotle, Caps fans!

By wearing your favorite Capitals jersey on Friday, you can earn a free entree through Chipotle's "suit up and score" campaign with the purchase of another entree of equal or lesser value.

While all jerseys qualify for the promotion, we recommend Alex Ovechkin's as he goes for goal No. 700.

So rock your red, grab a friend and head to Chipotle for this awesome deal redeemable Friday, Feb. 21 only.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.