On Tuesday night, Matt Hackett – nephew of former NHL goaltender Jeff – came into a game in relief for the Minnesota Wild and was stellar. The 21-year-old who had been starring in the American Hockey League stopped all 34 shots he faced to help the Wild continue rolling along as the top team in the league by beating the San Jose Sharks 2-1.
“Really impressive. Really impressive,” coach Mike Yeo told reporters afterward. “That’s not an easy team to go in and play your first game against. Not an easy situation to go in and play your first game. But the way he handled it … he was in control all night.”
Hackett’s success got me thinking of the Washington Capitals’ goaltending situation, which has been subpar by just about all standards. Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, who have combined for an .896 save percentage, have admitted as much.
“It’s a tough job, goaltending. Just like the player that goes down on a breakaway and misses, you’d like to have that one back, too,” coach Dale Hunter said. “It’s one of those things where the goalies got a tough job – we know that.”
Even as Hunter’s system has made games more “predictable” to use Vokoun’s word, the goaltenders haven’t been good enough to win consistently, allowing at least one soft goal a game.
The solution? Not even a solution in the short- or long-term but a spark: Call up a goaltender.
Not Braden Holtby, who has been a bit of a disappointment with a .900 save percentage for the Hershey Bears. Call up Philipp Grubauer, who at 20 years old is playing the best hockey – right now – of any goaltender in the system.
Yes, it’s at the ECHL level for the South Carolina Stingrays, but Grubauer’s 1.82 goals-against average and .935 save percentage are out of this world.
“I think he’s progressing ahead of the curve. He’s in a situation where he doesn’t belong in the East Coast League, but because of the depth Washington has and the amount of talented goalies they have, they needed a place for him to play,” associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig told me recently. “To his credit, he went down with a fantastic attitude. He’s a very goal-driven individual. He knows what he wants, he goes about it very professionally, he’s mature beyond his years.
“Very very quiet, yet very, very respected by his teammates, very well-liked by his teammates. And he’s played absolutely phenomenal down there.”
It’s no promise of future success. Far from it. But Grubauer’s ECHL numbers tower over those put up by Neuvirth and Holtby during their time with South Carolina. Neuvirth had a .918 save percentage and 2.28 GAA there, while Holtby had a .911 and 2.95.
It might only be for a game, but what is there to lose? Some salary cap wrangling would be necessary – like Jay Beagle to long-term injured reserve – but it’s a quick fix with the hope of getting a jump-start.
For now, Grubauer, who was named ECHL goalie of the month last week, is focused on doing his job.
“I just try to keep it simple and play how Dave [Prior] and Olie Kolzig teach me to play,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Of course everybody wants to play in the NHL. Every kid grows up wanting to play in the NHL and it’s my dream, too.”
Like Hackett, NHL teams know nothing of Grubauer, so he might have an edge just to give the Caps a chance to win a game. If he implodes, there is a risk of losing some confidence, but that’s nothing that can’t be built back up again by dominating in the minor leagues.
Right now, the Caps’ veteran goalies aren’t getting the job done, and Grubauer is. In the long term, he’ll have to wait in line for his opportunity, but getting a quick chance could be magical if he dominates an NHL game now.