It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Philipp Grubuaer.
The Colorado Avalanche plummeted down the standings in January, following up a concerning 4-7-3 record in December with a downright horrendous 3-7-0 campaign to kick off the new year. They went from the top of the Central Division approaching the holidays to the outside of the playoffs looking in, struggling to remain relevant as the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues started to surge.
Perhaps the largest share of the criticism went to Grubauer, who was falling far short of the expectations set for him when he was acquired by the Avalanche at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. While Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper and St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington had banner months in January, Grubauer posted a cumulative save percentage of .890 in all situations from the start of the season to February 13th. He was the 71st ranked goaltender by save percentage out of the 89 who had made an appearance in the NHL by that point, falling right in between San Jose’s Aaron Dell (who finished the season as the league’s third-worst backup) and Calgary’s Mike Smith (whose on-ice issues this season would take a novel to list).
After being used as a tandem for the first half of the season, the German-born backup was truly relegated to number two duties in February. He played in just three games, suffering the consequences of his prolonged struggles trying to fit into the team’s system during a tight playoff race; while he had proven his worth in Washington in years past, the Avalanche couldn’t afford to lose any more games.
Then, on February 23rd, he posted a 38-save shutout. And after losing his next game on March 3rd, he wouldn’t go without picking up a point again through the rest of the regular season.
For Washington fans, his March and April performance was all too familiar.
Grubauer’s heroics through the back half of Washington’s own playoff race last season gave starter Braden Holtby some much-needed rest, and it was good enough to play him right off their roster and into his new role with Colorado. He won seven of his last 10 starts with the Capitals in their 2017-18 campaign, making the majority of the team’s starts through March and April while Holtby got a break to get his game back in shape.
Could this become a habit? Sure; there are some goaltenders that will inevitably serve as late bloomers every year. They take longer to gel in a system and to learn the habits of their teammates, failing to thrive until they’ve found the perfect balance in a lineup.
It’s unlikely that’s the case with Grubauer. His huge late-season surges both have plausible explanations; he wasn’t in contention for the starting job in Washington, and he openly admitted to Mile High Hockey in November that the drastic contrast in defensive breakout systems and coaching styles for Washington and Colorado were taking a while to get adjusted to.
Whether his best performances will always come after the deadline or not, though, is a debate for the offseason. For now, all that matters is that he pulled it off this year — and not only turned his season around, but turned the team’s season around too.
Evaluating goaltenders in small sample sizes tends to go poorly, as the Edmonton Oilers have learned every time they sign a new acquisition to a long-term deal.
In the case of Philipp Grubauer’s 2018-19 season, though, splitting the data in half shows just how absurdly good he was down the back stretch of the year.
Consider this: from opening night to February 13th, the 27-year-old goaltender played in 23 games. As mentioned above, he posted a .890 save percentage in all situations during that span, allowing 70 goals and putting up just seven quality starts in the process.
Then, look at his numbers during the playoff push. He played in 14 games from February 23rd on, accounting for all but eight of the team’s 21 games in that last six weeks of the year. And during that time, his .956 save percentage in all situations was only worse than Ben Bishop’s .966, accumulated in 12 games of his own.
To put it in perspective, Grubauer’s 19 goals allowed through 14 games would have projected out to a 31-goals-against pace in 23 games, a whopping 39 fewer than he actually allowed through those first 23 appearances of the year. That’s the kind of difference that works miracles — and sure enough, it pushed Colorado from a spot floundering below Arizona and Minnesota to a comfortable four point lead over the Coyotes for the final Wild Card spot.
It wasn’t just luck, either. Take a look at this save from the team’s April 4th game against the Winnipeg Jets:
SAVE. BY. GRUBAUER. pic.twitter.com/tavLVNpQBc— NHL Deutsch (@NHLde) April 5, 2019
Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien came flying up the left wing, cutting across to take a high-danger shot inside the hashmarks. Grubauer held his depth perfectly just inside the blue paint, then made a perfect, crisp pad save that pushed the rebound out to the opposite side of the zone. He then tracked the rebound with his head and lead with his torso in a rotation to push laterally across the crease, staying focused on the rebound the entire time and getting re-centered on the puck before Blake Wheeler was able to take that second shot. By the time Wheeler had arrived at the puck, Grubauer’s entire torso was perfectly squared to the oncoming shot — and it not only enabled him to make the stop, but would have made it easy to adjust for a potential deflection or second rebound, as well.
Colorado’s final game of the season went fairly poorly for long-time starter Semyon Varlamov, who allowed four goals on 29 shots to drop the regular season finale in resounding fashion. It’s reasonable to assume that Grubauer will get the chance to face Calgary, earning the opportunity to try for his first-ever win against the Pacific Division club.
Grubauer’s game lacks the lateral agility that Varlamov’s has when the Russian starter is on top of his performance, which could leave him lagging if Calgary’s forward corps find another top gear to relentlessly push against Colorado’s defense.
Across the ice, though, the Flames have expressed confidence in Mike Smith. That means that Grubauer’s own criticism in November, when he told MHH that he didn’t feel comfortable allowing three goals every game (and winning on the back of the team’s offense), could be a moot point; Smith’s sub-.900 regular season save percentage is among the worst being offered up in the playoffs.
And even if Smith does find a playoff level to his game? Grubauer’s late-season performance shows he’s got that level, too.