As a rule, Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn doesn’t care much for beating around the bush. So when you ask him the biggest challenge facing rookie netminder Philipp Grubauer as he navigates through his maiden NHL season, he cuts right to the chase.
“If I were him the hardest part would be looking at how long the No. 1 is contracted for,” Korn said. “That, to me, is a bigger obstacle than anything else we talk about.”
Korn is referring to the five-year, $30.5 million commitment the Capitals made to Braden Holtby over the summer. Prior to signing Holtby, the Caps agreed to terms with Grubauer on a two-year, NHL contract worth $1.5 million.
Holtby, who turned 26 last month, is as much a part of the Capitals’ future as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. Grubauer, who will turn 24 next month and is scheduled to make his season debut tonight in Edmonton, aspires to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL – if not in Washington then somewhere else.
“We’re going to try – and I know he’s going to try - to make the most of it and understand what his role is at this particular moment,” Korn said.
“His job is to make himself so marketable that everybody in the league will want him, and then he becomes an asset to the Washington Capitals.”
Korn brought up Edmonton Oilers starting goaltender Cam Talbot as an example. When Henrik Lundqvist was injured last season, Talbot stepped out of his shadows as a backup and went 21-9-4 for the Rangers. Before the June draft, the Rangers traded Talbot to the Oilers for the 57th, 79th and 184th picks of the 2015 NHL draft.
“That’s my job,” Korn said, “to help make him the best asset we can make him and if that time should come that time will come and then it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Korn mentioned four of his former students who started as backups and worked their way into established No. 1s -- Dominik Hasek, Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason and Dan Ellis. He’s hoping Grubauer follows a similar path, even if it turns out to be with another NHL team.
Truth be told, Grubauer isn’t looking any further into the future than tonight. He has not played in a game since the Caps’ next-to-last preseason game on Oct. 2. Since then he has spent every practice and game day working alongside Korn and his variety of goaltending props and tools.
“I don’t approach anything different,” said Grubauer, who went 27-17-2 with the Hershey Bears last season before winning one regular season game and one playoff game for the Caps.
“Mitch gave me a couple things to work on that I’m working on now. I think every year you can improve and you can work on things, whether it’s playing the puck or reading the play. Obviously, it’s going to be a little bit tougher this year getting into a groove because maybe I’m not going to play as much as I used to in the past. But if I play I have to make sure I don’t have that rust on me and I play to my capabilities.”
Since the Capitals made him their fourth-round pick (112thoverall) in 2010, Grubauer has never played in fewer than 42 games in a single season. Since last playing on Oct. 2 he has practiced in front of screen boards, carried medicine balls and stopped pucks in a variety of sizes and colors.
“Every time I go out there before practice I get better,” Grubauer said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Holts or the guys shooting or if it’s me. If you work hard you’re going to get better eventually. (Korn) brings so much variety into the practice, whether it’s the screen board, white pucks, medicine ball -- everything has a place and makes sense because it helps you improve.”
Grubauer said a few points of emphasis have been playing tighter in his crease, handling the puck more cleanly, tracking the puck through traffic and reading and anticipating where the puck is going.
“If doesn’t matter to Mitch if you’re 6-foot-5 or 5-11, he doesn’t tell you you have to play deep or play far out. You’re the goalie and he makes you prove who you can be. It’s been great working with him so far and we’re all moving in the right direction.”
Someday, that direction could be in another NHL city and Korn says he and Grubauer are OK with that.
“He gets it,” Korn said. “He understands this is an apprenticeship and that’s what it is.”
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