There is a lot of buzz over prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov and his first season in North America, but there’s another netminder in the system who is expected to get more NHL playing time in 2018-19 and that is Pheonix Copley.
Copley, 26, will enter training camp as the frontrunner to replace Philipp Grubauer as Braden Holtby’s backup in the NHL.
“I'm really excited,” Copley told NBC Sports Washington after an informal skate at MedStar Iceplex. “Obviously, that's the opportunity you want.”
Copley’s numbers in Hershey were not great last season (.896 save percentage, 2.91 GAA) as he had still not recovered from the groin injury that had ended his prior season. Before the injury, however, Copley has managed an impressive AHL career.
Copley told NBC Sports Washington that he feels good physically for the start of this season, which is good news for the Caps considering he has big skates to fill.
Grubauer established himself as a starting caliber goalie with his strong play as Holtby’s backup. In 2017-18, the German netminder managed a .923 save percentage and 2.35 GAA. He proved critical to the team’s success as Holtby struggled in the back half of the season due in large part to fatigue. Having a goalie as good as Grubauer to back him up allowed the team some flexibility in net.
After playing in 24 postseason games and with a shorter offseason to recover, the pressure is on for Copley to show he can be as dependable a backup as Grubauer was.
“Grubi's a great goalie and a great guy and I spent a lot of time with him,” Copley said. “But anytime you go into a season and in training camp, there's a spot you want. As a goalie, it's naturally a pressure position so it's really no different than any other year, just a different league.”
The transition from AHL to NHL can be a difficult one not just because of the quality of play, but because of the workload.
In Hershey, Copley could expect to play in around 40 games. In the NHL, he will get closer to 20.
“My first-year pro, I kind of went through that in the American League. It's the same kind of situations as you face elsewhere in pro hockey, it's just a different league this time. I'm sure the pressure and the speed, everything amps up, but really it's no different, the challenges. It's just, you've got to be that much more mentally strong and that much more ready to face your challenges.”
Adjusting to fewer games is the challenge Washington wants to avoid with Samsonov and is ultimately why the backup job is Copley’s for the taking.
In his first season in North America, the most important thing for Samsonov is to get as much playing time as possible. That will help both his transition to the North American game and his development as a goalie. Playing in 40 to 50 games in the AHL will ultimately be much better for him than riding the bench behind Holtby and getting only 15-20 games of experience, even if it is at the NHL level.
But Copley is not just a placeholder, he will have to perform.
The Capitals are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they have their sights set on a repeat. Grubauer was critical in helping Washington win the Metropolitan Division and getting Holtby rest for the playoffs. The Caps will need a similar contribution from Copley if they hope to repeat.
The backup job looks like Copley’s to win heading into training camp, but it is also his to lose.
“There's good goalies here,” Copley said, “So I'm just going to come and work hard every day and do my best and every time I get a chance, try and give the team a chance to win every time I'm out there.”
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