by Scott Stuccio || AHL On The Beat Archive
Whether a player has made one NHL appearance or 500, watching him grow through development in the American Hockey League is one of the most rewarding parts of following the AHL.
If there is one position that best highlights development within the Washington Capitals organization, it is undoubtedly goaltending.
The Capitals’ affiliation with the Hershey Bears goes back to the 2005-06 season. The Capitals used three goaltenders that year, and in 2006-07: Frederic Cassivi (five games), Brent Johnson (56 games) and Olie Kolzig (113 games). Cassivi earned his well-deserved opportunity, but everyone in Bears country most remembers him as the hero of the 2006 AHL postseason — after which he was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, along with the Calder Cup.
The very same creases which Cassivi tended at Giant Center through the years have been manned by many, some who have gone on to great success in both the AHL and in the NHL, and some who are just hitting their prime.
Semyon Varlamov came on scene during the 2008-09 season and went on to post 19 wins in 27 games in Hershey. He was last seen in the American Hockey League in 2010-11, a brief three-game stint with the Bears, and is now playing superbly for the Colorado Avalanche.
Michal Neuvirth, who played in tandem with Varlamov for a time, also joined the organization in 2008-09. He claimed MVP honors following the 2009 Calder Cup playoffs after backstopping the Bears to their second title in four years.
Braden Holtby has undoubtedly drawn the most attention in the organization since Neuvirth took his permanent spot in the NHL. Holtby joined the Bears one season after Neuvirth did, and the two became a nearly unbeatable tandem — helping Hershey into the AHL record books numerous times during a 60-win regular season 2009-10 and eventually a second straight Calder Cup.
Fast forward to 2012-13 and the NHL lockout. Holtby started the season in Hershey, while Dany Sabourin split the time with him.
A young man by the name of Philipp Grubauer — Washington’s fourth-round selection (112th overall) in the draft year of the Bears’ last Calder Cup championship (2010) — was waiting patiently in the wings, along with all the hype and excitement that could accompany him.
Grubauer began the season in Reading, and it could be argued that the Royals’ Kelly Cup championship — their first as an ECHL affiliate of the Bears and Capitals — would not have come to pass had it not been for Grubauer starting them off. The German-born goaltender won 19 of his 26 appearances, and once the lockout was lifted, things really took off for the now-22-year-old.
On Jan. 12, 2013, Grubauer won his first AHL game, a 35-save performance against the Connecticut Whale. He then went 4-1-1 in the month of February, 5-2-1 in March and 4-3-0 in April, working with Sabourin to ensure that the Bears’ run of playoff appearances as Capitals’ affiliate stayed perfect.
It also was no coincidence that his month of March was his best in Hershey, statistics-wise. That same month, he earned his first NHL action in the Capitals’ net — 25:05 of perfect relief work — to help the Capitals from going down any further in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. He got his first NHL start on Long Island on March 9, unfortunately being tagged with a loss despite stopping 40 shots.
Grubauer became the fourth German-born netminder in history to play in the NHL, just months after starting the season two levels lower.
One thing that impressed many people was the high number of games in which Grubauer has played that required more than 60 minutes to complete. Performances like that demand a lot more than even every-day conditioning can allow.
But from the man himself, he says it’s just part of the job.
“It’s not that difficult because I’ve done it so many times in Reading and in Hershey,” Grubauer relayed in a recent interview. “It’s not a big deal. Of course I want to get it done and get the game over in 60 minutes, but if you don’t score or if they score, it’s another way to get the extra point. That’s how I look at it.”
This season, Grubauer was recalled to Washington in late November, and again, his first appearance of the season was in relief. His next one finally earned him the first victory of his National Hockey League career. From that date of his first win on Dec. 8, through as recently as Jan. 14, Grubauer lost only two games in regulation.
However, six of those games were decided in shootouts.
“I learned a lot in those games,” Grubauer recalled. “I think I improved in every game I played and I’m looking forward to getting up there again pretty soon.”
Not only were “those games” decided in shootouts, but many were low-scoring. So was there any added pressure on him?
“That’s my job, to keep the pucks out of the net and try to keep the score as low as I can,” Grubauer added. “Unfortunately we didn’t score much. It didn’t happen the last couple of games. I think the last six, we scored five goals and that’s not good enough to win. They got chances but couldn’t put the puck in the net. But as a goalie, I’m just there to try to keep the score as low as possible.”
Grubuaer was caught in what many considered to be an odd circumstance — three healthy goaltenders on the same NHL roster — for weeks. Holtby, Neuvirth and Grubauer were all working together at one point, following Neuvirth’s return from injured reserve. Grubauer was the one used most often.
But now that Neuvirth is completely healthy again, Grubauer has returned to Hershey. And he has done his job of keeping the score as low as possible, twice. In two games back between the Hershey pipes, he has allowed one goal on 57 shots — but neither game went beyond regulation.
“It’s good to get going with these guys, winning so many in a row at home,” he said. “It’s nice to come back and see these guys on a streak, and I’m going to try to play like I did up there to help win more games.”
It is only a matter of time before another one of the Hershey Bears’ shining stars in goal finds his way to a permanent spot in the National Hockey League.