When he bravely walked into the lion’s den of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Islanders, goaltender Philipp Grubauer wasn’t thinking about the possibility of signing a one-way, two-year contract extension with the Capitals. But he knew the ramifications.
“I didn’t focus on getting a new contract,” Grubauer said Tuesday from his summer home in Rosenheim, Germany. “I wanted to finish the season strong and not worry about a second contract.
“I had to play good down in Hershey and step up in Washington in the playoffs and the one regular season game I got, and show them I can be ready for the NHL and will be ready for the NHL. To get that one-way contract, I’m really happy.”
By signing a two-year deal worth $1.5 million – Grubauer will make $650,000 next season and $850,000 in 2016-17 – the 23-year-old goaltender is likely to begin next season as Braden Holtby’s backup. His cap hit will be a friendly $750,000 and will likely result in Justin Peters spending the final year of his two-year, $1.9 million contract with the AHL Hershey Bears.
“That was the goal for me, to get a one-way contract,” Grubauer said, “and I’m really, really happy to be a part of the Capitals for another two years. I’ve been with the organization since I’ve been drafted [fourth round, 112th overall in 2010] and I think it’s one of the best organizations and I’m glad to stay here.”
Grubauer said the Capitals and his agent “negotiated for a little bit” over his desire to land a one-way contract, which pays him the same amount whether he plays in the NHL or AHL. He admitted that if he begins the 2015-16 season in Washington it will be an adjustment playing fewer games as a backup.
Last season, Grubauer played in 49 games with the Bears and went 27-17-2 with a 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage. If he backs up Holtby, who tied a franchise record by playing in 73 games last season, Grubauer would likely be counted on to play in about 20 games.
“We will see what’s going to happen,” Grubauer said. “I’ve got to get ready for the season as if I would start in the NHL. That’s the goal, to be a starter in the NHL and it’s got to start with the backup job. You’ve got to start somewhere with the backup job. I want to take the next step. With the AHL, I learned and played down there and I want to take the next step to the NHL full-time.
“I played close to 50 games last year in Hershey and it’s going to be a little different next year, for sure, not playing as much. You have to just stay focused and work and soak everything in if I’m going to be up there full time. You can learn by watching as well. That’s what I did when I first came over to Canada for my first couple seasons.”
Even before he was taken by the Caps in the 2010 draft, Grubauer left his family at the age of 17 to play in the Ontario Hockey League. A 6-foot-1, 184-pounder, he played two full seasons in the OHL before beginning his pro career with the South Carolina Stingrays of the East Coast Hockey League. He split the 2012-13 season between Reading [26 games], Hershey [28 games] and the Caps [2 games] and played well enough in Hershey the following season to get a 17-game call-up under Adam Oates in 2013-14, going 6-5-5.
“The more and more you play the more you grow as a player and I think that was the case for me,” he said. “Two years ago when I played those 17 games [for the Capitals] I was fortunate to play those and I got sent down and I developed my game. You grow. It’s really important when you’re not in the NHL to make sure you’re ready. You saw in the playoffs that every second and every detail matters and you can make the difference in the game.”
Grubauer was introduced to the coaching methods of Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn last summer, but spent most of last season working with Scott Murray, the Bears’ goalie instructor. Grubauer said he focused on playing the puck better, making himself look bigger between the pipes, and tracking the puck through traffic. He said it would be “amazing” to work with Korn for a full season.
“You learn so much,” he said. “I didn’t have a chance to practice with him much, but he stayed in contact with Scotty and those two guys have the same philosophy. I’m really looking forward to working with Mitch again.”
If all goes as expected and Grubauer nails down the job as Holtby’s backup next season, he said he thinks Pheonix Coppley is ready to replace him as the starting goaltender in Hershey. Signed as a free agent out of Michigan Tech, Copley, also 23, served as Grubauer’s backup this season, going 17-4-1 with a 2.17 GAA and .925 save percentage.
“He works incredibly hard,” Grubauer said. “He’s a taller guy [6-foot-3, 190 pounds] and really a nice guy and he had an amazing season last year and I’m sure he’s ready to take the No. 1 spot. I think he only lost one game in 2015. He’s an amazing guy and works really hard, so he deserves it all.”
Grubauer said he plans on remaining in Germany this summer and returning to Washington in early September. If there is anything he has learned during his pro career, he said it is not to be surprised by anything – like getting a surprise start against the Anaheim Ducks, a 3-2 shootout win on Feb. 15, or stepping in for an ailing Holtby in Game 2 of the playoffs with the Caps trailing the series 1-0.
“When you get called up you need to win those games, especially the second game against the Islanders,” he said. “If [the Caps] go down 2-0 and then go into their building with them leading 2-0 … You always have to be ready. I was surprised in he playoffs when I started that game, so don’t be surprised, I guess.”