Stanley Cup champions usually don’t have a lot of holes to fill the following offseason.
The Washington Capitals have focused on retaining, not adding, during free agency this summer. The only new player fans should expect on the NHL roster is center Nic Dowd, a candidate to replace Jay Beagle on the fourth line. It was much more pressing to keep their core.
To polish off that checklist, they freed up the necessary cap space by trading Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to Colorado on draft weekend.
The Capitals brought Orpik back, anyway, when the Avalanche bought out his contract. But Grubauer’s departure created the only major personnel question the Capitals have not moved to address: Who will back up Braden Holtby in 2018-19?
It was undoubtedly a smart trade for Washington to make, but it was partly spurred on by Grubauer’s antsiness to be a starting goaltender somewhere. Though he said he felt no pressure to move the German, general manager Brian MacLellan acknowledged a week before the trade that Grubauer wanted to prove himself as a starter.
“He wants to be the guy that is running the show for his own team, and I respect that,” MacLellan said.
He wasn’t going to be able to do that in Washington with Holtby in the room. But the importance of dressing a solid second-string goalie can’t be overlooked.
Grubauer, on the losing end of Games 1 and 2 against Columbus, wasn’t much help in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But the Capitals might not have made it that far without him. While Holtby struggled through one of the roughest stretches of his career in February and March, Grubauer picked up a few more starts and helped the Capitals stay ahead of their division rivals.
Holtby, who will turn 29 before the new season, only started 54 regular-season games, his lowest total in four years. Grubauer’s 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage across 28 starts and seven appearances in relief of Holtby will be hard to replace.
Put aside the possibility of Holtby getting injured — the Capitals play 13 back-to-backs next year and prefer not to start Holtby twice in two days. When the second half of a back-to-back comes against a team like Pittsburgh or Winnipeg, a goalie with experience will be a must.
Right now, the likeliest candidate in-house is Pheonix Copley, but Grubauer’s experience far outstrips Copley’s so far. He had a good AHL season with the Hershey Bears and was called up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Capitals to have on hand as their emergency third goalie. But he has only appeared in two NHL games for the St. Louis Blues and allowed five goals in his only start.
Ilya Samsonov could be a name to listen for this year, but the 21-year-old Russian and 2015 first-round pick has yet to play professionally in North America — or even to learn enough English to get comfortable here. He signed his entry-level deal with the Capitals after playing out his KHL contract and is likely to spend the year in Hershey.
The Capitals could decide to sign a veteran backup to step in for Holtby when need be, but there are a few roadblocks with that. Signing Wilson brought the Capitals’ roster up to a full 23 players and their available cap down to $1 million and change. They would need to option Copley or a depth winger down to Hershey to make space.
And if they do all that, their best options would be Steve Mason, Kari Lehtonen and Ondrej Pavelec, who might not come at great value to Washington.
If backup goalie is the Capitals’ only area of weakness next year, that would indicate that most of the players who just won a championship are back for a strong title defense. Still, they may be short one key contributor to get them through the regular season first.
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