Philipp Grubauer made a surprising move this offseason, when it was announced the talented backup goaltender for the Washington Capitals did not file for player-elected arbitration. It was justified by both parties with the promise of a deal just on the horizon.
Sure enough, the Capitals and Grubauer announced an extension on July 6, confirming a one-year deal for the restricted free agent.
While it’s a one-year deal, the terms are somewhat shocking. Grubauer and the Capitals agreed — and rather quickly, given how long RFA negotiations can stretch out for team talent — to a $1.5 million salary for the 2017-18 campaign, giving the No. 2 goalie an incredibly cap-friendly contract for the year.
It’s true that Grubauer is up for an extension next season, and may have given the team his one hometown discount. Maybe things will be significantly more difficult next summer. For now, though, it’s one of the biggest steals of the offseason.
For starters, Grubauer has played in more than 20 games at the NHL level in each of the last two seasons, giving a reasonable sample size for the body of work he offers as a quality backup. In the 2015-16 campaign, he was 8-9-1 with a .918 save percentage through 22 games, sitting at almost exactly league-average numbers. That’s perfect behind a Vezina-caliber starter; the Capitals didn’t need him to be elite, just good enough to give Braden Holtby a much-needed rest.
This past season he elevated his game. In 23 appearances, the 25-year-old German went 13-6-2, posting three shutouts and a .926 save percentage. That was coupled with an impressive .684 quality start percentage, meaning that he posted a .917 save percentage — or allowed two or fewer goals in games with a .887 save percentage or better — in over two-tirds of his recorded starts.
That’s both consistent and high-level play. The Capitals didn’t need a backup that good, but they certainly benefitted from having it.
It’s those very numbers that seem to make Grubauer’s contract so questionable, both in terms of his final salary and in his willingness to take such a low deal. He has consistently put up numbers comparable to Carolina’s Scott Darling, who managed to snag a starting gig this summer as a result, yet he took a short-term offer that paid him exactly as an established (but league average) backup would get paid.
There’s a possibility, of course, that any analysis of the deal truly underestimates how much Grubauer wanted to stay in Washington.
When Karl Alzner signed with the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent this summer, he made a negative quip about wanting to get away from a team that “was always bounced in the second round.”
It’s hard to deny that the Capitals have statistically been one of the NHL’s most powerful regular-season franchises over the last few years. If Grubauer wanted another immediate shot at the Stanley Cup, he might have reasoned that his best chance was to stay on as a backup in Washington. Any other true Cup contender likely already had a starter, and almost certainly a pricey one to boot, so he’d be getting backup money with a playoff team — and the clubs that would be willing to sign him as a starter need considerable work before they’ll see the postseason.
There’s no way of knowing the thought process behind the deal, though.
Maybe Grubauer was nervous about getting a lower arbitration award if he took things that far. Maybe his desire to stick around with Mitch Korn for another year before truly hitting the market as a potential starter overshadowed his hopes of bigger money.
The reasoning behind it, at this point, is almost irrelevant. For the Capitals, the deal was a godsend.
James Reimer went to the Florida Panthers in free agency as a backup for Roberto Luongo and snagged $3.4 million a season in doing so. Thomas Greiss gets $2 million a season with the New York Islanders, career backup Chad Johnson signed for $2.5 million with the Sabres, and Petr Mrazek managed to haul in $4 million a season after pushing the Detroit Red Wings toward arbitration last year.
In theory, Grubauer could have taken home quite a lot more. It’s tough to tell exactly why he accepted what he did, but the Capitals should be buying him one heck of a thank-you dinner.