The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.
Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.
Today's question: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role in place of Philipp Grubauer?
Tarik: One of the more unappreciated aspects of the 2017-18 season was the outstanding job Philipp Grubauer did in the regular season.
Grubauer, at times, was asked to shoulder the load as starter Braden Holtby went through a “reset.” And the longtime backup maximized that opportunity, establishing career highs in appearances (35), starts (28) and wins (15). In fact, from Thanksgiving until the end of the regular season, Grubi was, statistically speaking, the best goalie in the NHL, posting a .935 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average.
Of course, things didn’t go nearly as well in the playoffs; he was lifted in Game 2 of the first round after giving up eight goals on 49 shots. He didn’t play again for the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but the Caps wouldn’t have won a third straight Metro Division title without him.
So, yeah, backup goalie can be a critical role.
Which brings us to today’s question: Can Pheonix Copley step in for Grubauer, who is now Colorado’s starter?
Let me start off by saying the Caps really like Copley. So much so, they acquired him twice. (The team signed him as an undrafted free agent, dealt him to St. Louis in the deal that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington, then reacquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.)
At 6-foot-4, 200-pounds, Copley’s got ideal size. The 26-year-old native of North Pole, Alaska is lanky, athletic and coachable. He’s also due to earn the league minimum of $650,000, which provides some salary cap flexibility.
Can Copley handle the responsibility? Well, that’s certainly the expectation. But until he actually does the job, it’s a legitimate question/concern, particularly when you consider how important Grubauer proved to be a year ago.
Copley’s only got two NHL appearances on his resume and his numbers in Hershey last season (15-17-4 / .896 percentage / 2.91 goals against average) aren’t very reassuring. I’m told, however, that he played much better from February through the end of the regular season, and that he’s finally 100-percent healthy. Remember, he suffered a serious groin injury in the 2017 AHL playoffs and missed the first nine games of last season.
If Copley can pick up where he left off with the Bears last season, I think he’ll be fine. He also gained some much needed experience as one of the black aces during the Cup run, facing shots every day in practice from Alex Ovechkin and Co. If Copley fumbles the opportunity, though, the Caps will be forced to go to their backup plan...accelerating the development of 2015 first-rounder Ilya Samsonov, who'll be just 130 miles up the road.
JJ: When trying to evaluate how Copley will be in the NHL, I believe you have to throw out last season. In 41 games with the Hershey Bears, Copley managed only a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage. Not good. If you look at those numbers alone, it's fair to wonder why the Caps are OK with Copley taking over the backup role.
The season prior, however, after being reacquired by the Capitals as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, Copley was brilliant in Hershey with a 2.15 GAA and .931 save percentage and he kept those numbers remarkably consistent in the playoffs (2.13, .933). His season was brought to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious groin injury and it was clear from the start of the 2017-18 season that he just had not fully recovered.
I am not concerned that the Capitals will get last year's Copley. Nor am I concerned about another Holtby "reset." That was the worst slump of his career, but coming off a Stanley Cup run, I am expecting a confident Holtby in net and it seems doubtful he would suffer another slump quite as drastically bad as last season.
What I am concerned about, however, is just how much of a load Copley will ultimately be able to handle.
An ideal scenario would be to limit Holtby to about 60 to 65 games. Is Copley capable of providing the Caps with 20+ quality games? It's not enough to just go out and play, he has to play well. A team cannot always take an L just because the backup is in net.
Considering Copley has only two games of NHL experience in his entire career, there is no real way to answer this question and that's why backup goaltending is a potential weakness for Washington next season.
Why go with such a big question mark after returning almost the entire team for a second potential Cup run? Two reasons. First, the team does absolutely have faith in Copley. As noted above by Tarik, that was evident when he was reacquired from St. Louis. Second, because he is a cheap, temporary placeholder for Samsonov who could be penciled in as the backup as early as 2019-20 depending on how his first season in North America goes.
Best case scenario, Copley plays 20-25 games, earns a winning record and Samsonov takes over as backup next season after a strong showing in Hershey.
And the worst case scenario? The Caps are shopping for a backup goalie at the trade deadline.
Other key Caps questions
- How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
- Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
- Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
- Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?
- Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?
- Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?
- Will Tom Wilson make more headlines this season for his offense or physical play?