In a normal offseason, there would be no questions about Philipp Grubauer’s return to Washington.
As a restricted free agent, his options are limited and the Caps would of course love to hold on to a goalie who was arguably the best backup netminder in the NHL this past season.
But this is no normal offseason.
With the Vegas expansion draft looming, Grubauer may find himself suiting up for the Golden Knights in October rather than the Capitals.
“Everbody's asking me, you know anything about what's going on?” Grubauer said at the Capitals’ breakdown day. “But I told everybody I know as much as you guys do. You probably don't know until the actual draft so we'll see. It's going to be really interesting. There's going to be a lot deals made and trades made so it's going to be an interesting summer for everybody.”
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Grubauer, 25, played in 24 games this season finishing with a 13-6-2 record, 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage. Those are the type of numbers that will make teams around the league take notice.
“For me it was important this year to be more consistent, more than last year,” Grubauer said, “Help the team out every time I step on the ice and give [Braden Holtby] a good rest and I think I improved a little bit this season.”
Grubauer's improvement certainly was noticeable. Now he hopes that will lead him to the next step, a chance to be an NHL starter.
“I would like to make a push or get a chance to start as a No. 1 goalie,” he said. “I think that's the goal for anybody. Nobody wants to settle as a backup in this league. You want to go more, you want to play your own game, not sit on the bench. Hopefully I've shown this year that I can be capable of doing that.”
But with Holtby under contract for another three seasons and prospect Ilya Samsonov lighting up the KHL, the chance to be a No.1 goalie likely will not come in Washington.
General manager Brian MacLellan is still in the process of deciding what direction the team will go in this offseason. Should they choose to continue pushing for the Stanley Cup, having a dependable backup is an important piece to the puzzle. The Pittsburgh Penguins are evidence of that as starting goalie Matt Murray was injured prior to Game 1 of the team’s first round series and Marc-Andre Fleury has carried them to the conference finals.
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So even though Grubauer is not likely to become the team’s starter, there is still plenty of reason for the team to hold onto him as a backup. But it’s not just up to them.
The expansion draft allows for teams to protect only one goalie. That goalie will be Holtby which will leave Grubauer exposed. Considering the general manager of the Golden Knights, George McPhee, drafted Grubauer and the team’s goalie coach, David Prior, served as the Caps’ goalie coach from 1997 to 2014, you can understand why Vegas would be interested. A young budding starter who the organization already has some familiarity with? Makes a lot of sense.
“With George and Dave out there in Vegas, there are thoughts, but I don't have any control over that,” Grubauer said. “That's Mac, Mac's decision or Las Vegas' decision. I'm just waiting. My contract is up this year too so I don't know what's going on. It's all going to fall in place in the next couple weeks.”
Could the Caps make a deal in order to protect Grubauer from the draft? Yes, but every team is going to lose a player to the draft. If you protect Grubauer that means you lose someone else. If Washington ultimately loses its backup goalie, that’s really not a huge price to pay.
As for Grubauer, he is in the unenviable position of having zero control over where he may end up next season. Vegas would most likely offer him a chance to start, but it sounds as if he would also be fine if he should remain with the Caps.
“I don't have any control, any choice over it, where I go or where they send me or if they don't send me I stay here,” Grubauer said. “I would like to stay here. Washington is awesome and the whole organization's been awesome the last couple of years. But I'm ready if the opportunity comes to make the next step and try to be starting goalie somewhere.”