When Philipp Grubauer stood in the dressing room following Colorado’s first of two road games against the Arizona Coyotes this season, he didn’t try to fill his self-assessment with generic buzzwords or platitudes.
“It took me a little while to settle in,” he surmised, “but the bottom line is that I can still do better. I can’t keep relying on the team to score four, five, six goals a night to win the game… this is what, one of my first games where I didn’t allow three goals? I can’t keep doing that.”
That game against Arizona, which saw Colorado take home a 5-1 win over their future divisional opponents, was what he considered the first game in which he felt truly ‘back’, so to speak. He felt like it was his first game of the year where he felt as comfortable and instinctual as he had back in Washington, DC, the city and organization where he’d spent his entire pro career prior to his summer trade.
Since then, it’s been hard to confidently assert that he has, indeed, settled in after all. He’s gone hot then cold, either putting up stellar stats or absolutely catastrophic ones. He’s gotten pulled twice in his last three games, including in the second road contest against Arizona just two days before Christmas — and now, that’s looking like something that the team just can’t afford.
Semyon Varlamov is out, once again, with a lower-body injury. If you want to stop us, claiming you’ve heard that one before, we wouldn’t blame you; for all his excellence in net, Varlamov remains a very clear injury liability at the NHL level of play.
That leaves the Avalanche with just Grubauer and first-year North American pro Pavel Francouz to man the crease for the time being, hardly a reassuring tandem given that one is inexperienced and one hovers below the .900 threshold.
As much as the situation seems non-ideal, though, it’s a crucial time of year for the German-born Avalanche backup. Given the team’s uncertain future in net, this is his time to shine — and with a multi-year extension, the team will need to hope he can do just that.
THINKING THINGS THROUGH
Ask Grubauer about any skater he’s about to face, and chances are he’ll be able to tell you what he’s looking for.
Some goaltenders don’t want to view too much film ahead of a game, nervous about the risk of over-analyzing a shooter’s game or overlooking an unexpected scoring attempt.
To Grubauer, though, the analytical approach to goaltending is almost second nature now.
He started doing film work when he joined the Capitals organization in 2011. Although he started in the ECHL, slowly working his way to the top over the years, Grubauer explained that he was under Mitch Korn’s direction from the start.
“He’s overseeing every goalie in the system, top to bottom, and there’s a specific approach that he uses to get everyone on board.”
Was it easy to start poring over game film and analyzing shooter approaches? Not exactly — for the very reasons that some goaltenders are hesitant to do so. It’s a lot of information to process for anyone, especially a goaltender in the midst of his most crucial development years.
If there’s anyone in hockey who has an almost Belichick-esque method of ‘trusting the process’, though, it’s Mitch Korn. He believes in what he does and over time, he gets you to buy in, too. So from film to unique tools to try out, Grubauer was introduced to an almost staggering amount of options to help improve his game.
When you buy in and let Korn take your game where it needs to go, though, Grubauer insisted his methods worked. So even now, he’s happy to flip through the information available to him, taking a look at the skaters he’s about to face down and preparing himself to identify habits and trends before he’s ever stepped out on the ice.
There’s a possibility, of course, that this is contributing to any dip in his numbers. Goaltending is as much reaction as it is preparation, and relying too much on what you know while ignoring what you feel can be a death sentence.
Take, for example, the goal Richard Panik scored on Grubuaer in the second game between Arizona and Colorado:
The Coyotes have an almost horrifying tendency to choke up on their sticks this year, holding on to the puck and playing a perimeter game that makes it easy for goaltenders to wait out their passing options and easily stop the puck.
On this play, though, Richard Panik doesn’t try to wait out and move to the outside for a sharp-angle shot. He starts to pull to the left, then stops short while Patrik Nemeth continues to try cutting him off to the outside. Grubauer, likely anticipating Panik continuing to move to the outside, cheats towards his left post while holding an angle with Panik — but then leaves the far side wide open for Panik’s quick shot on the inside of Nemeth’s defense.
It’s an easy enough rut to diagnose, and once a goaltender has pulled out of it and stopped overthinking it’s easy to overcome. At this point, it’s a matter of how soon Grubauer is able to do that.
The good news is that Francouz, despite still experiencing some growing pains in North America, has been statistically strong in relief with the Avalanche so far.
There’s no telling how long Varlamov will be out over the remainder of the season, but Francouz has held fairly strong while trying to get his feet wet at the NHL level. So while Grubuaer shakes off whatever has been plaguing him lately, there’s more help than last year’s options of Spencer Martin or Andrew Hammond.
It’s also not particularly concerning to see some growing pains for Grubuaer, especially at this point in Colorado’s window. Their playoff prime is just opening up now, meaning that this isn’t a do-or-die year for anyone on the team but possibly Varlamov; the rest of the team’s core is young, effective, and not likely to go anywhere any time soon. If it takes Grubauer a little more time to get used to a new system, new style, and new teammates, it’s not the end of the world.
The German-born goaltender did admit that the style in Colorado is incredibly different from what he was used to in Washington, so expecting him to be at his prime before around January in his first Colorado season was a bit of a pipe dream from the start. And the best news of all is that he’s incredibly self-aware; as the team grows and develops, he’s not going to get left behind in the process.
Now, it’s just time to wait and see.