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Is Philipp Grubauer ready for an NHL starter’s workload?

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The good (and the uncertain) behind Philipp Grubauer being the team’s most experienced NHL goaltender

Colorado Avalanche v San Jose Sharks - Game Seven Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

The Colorado Avalanche took a massive gamble when they opted to walk away from starter Semyon Varlamov for good this summer.

Based on the statistical success of the team at the end of the 2018-19 season, it wasn’t exactly a blind gamble. Backup Philipp Grubauer had carried the team, by and large, through a rough offensive patch on the ice and into the playoffs with some of the best play in the league during the team’s spring campaign — and then he managed to shine as their playoff starter, all but cementing his spot as their future in net.

Based on the statistical struggle at the start of the season, though, it was still a high-risk gamble to make.

With just a few weeks left until the 2019-20 NHL season’s preparations begin, the Avalanche are sitting on the precipice of the unknown. They’ve been carrying the same starting goaltender since 2011, longer than every Western Conference club but Los Angeles, Nashville, and Chicago.

It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that it was time to move on from Varlamov. Age, salary, and injury history were all significant risk factors for the veteran himself, giving the team a gamble no matter what decision they made during their off-season; they could go with a known (but aging) quanitity, or take a leap of faith based on what they know if players coming up in the system. Now, they’ll see if that pays off.

Grubauer will be entering his first NHL season as the consensus number one, forming half of a tandem with the Czech-born Pavel Francouz. Between the pair, they’ll have just 140 collective regular-season NHL games under their belt, combined for less than two full seasons of NHL action between the pipes when the new year begins. It will be anecdotal evidence — Grubauer’s phenomenal spring runs to the playoffs for the Capitals in 2018 and the Avalanche in 2019, along with Francouz’s positive NHL debuts — that fuels confidence in the pair, not a large body of evidence.

As daunting as that may sound, though, there’s plenty to like about what the pair bring to the table. And if Grubauer’s starts are managed, it’s entirely possible that the team will enter next season with that coveted strong body of work to reassure fans that things will continue to look good.

THE GOOD

The most common refrain in hockey analysis is that goaltenders are “voodoo”. The lack of a measurable statistic to gauge their success independent of the rest of the team, combined with the incredibly small margin for success, makes it incredibly difficult to properly predict which goaltenders will thrive and which ones will struggle at the NHL level. Outside of Henrik Lundqvist and the now-retired Roberto Luongo, very few NHL goaltenders have been able to replicate consistent success for over a decade in the game’s modern era; now that the game has gotten faster and goaltenders have gotten better, the gap between ‘Vezina caliber’ and ‘replacement level backup’ has shrunk to almost impossible-to-predict levels.

That can make it daunting to try and predict whether or not a goaltender will be starter-caliber with just 138 regular-season games under his belt.

Overall, though, Grubuaer’s success on a season-to-season basis has been largely consistent. While he has struggled with rough patches, he typically finishes out his seasons above average.

Even with stretches of games where he struggles to win, his career average for Quality Starts (meaning games where he gives the team a >75% chance to win, typically with 2 or fewer goals allowed and/or a .915 sv% or better) hovers at 61.6%. The league average for quality starts is roughly 53%, meaning that he’s performing with an above-average consistency over the course of his career — and with just one season that falls below that margin (his 2015-16 season, when he put up quality starts in just 43.8% of his games) it’s tough to be too worried.

It’s also worth pointing out that his technique is less injury-prone than Varlamov’s, which makes it easier to feel a sense of security that he’s going to be able to play through the year without leaving the team in the lurch.

Grubauer plays with a fairly narrow stance, giving himself more explosive power while moving and limiting the wear and tear on his groin and hips. He’s got phenomenal flexibility, but limits his usage of it and relies more on smaller movements and upper body stability while staying on his skates longer than his Avalanche starter predecessor. His recovery from the ice is phenomenal, too; just take a look at how he kept the Avalanche in games during chaotic defensive breakdowns during the playoffs this past spring.

It’s that very example of recovering so well in the face of a defensive breakdown that gives confidence in how well he’ll do in the long haul, too.

At the start of last season, Grubauer openly admitted that he was still getting used to the defensive structure in Colorado — and that even when the team was winning games with him in net, he wasn’t feeling quite as settled as he wanted to be.

If his play by the postseason is any indication, that won’t be a problem anymore.

THE UNCERTAIN

The biggest question mark, of course, isn’t necessarily Grubauer’s ability alone — it’s how well he’ll be able to do without a reliable, proven number two behind him.

When other teams have brought young goaltenders in to play heavier workloads in recent years, they’ve routinely done so with a proven, veteran backup in the wings in case something goes wrong.

The Avalanche lack that. Where John Gibson has had Ryan Miller as a safety net (and Jacob Markstrom had Miller before him), Andrei Vasilevskiy got to develop with Ben Bishop, and Carter Hart will have Brian Elliott, the Avalanche have a European free agent who played in just two NHL games last season (and will enter just his second year of North American play altogether when the 2019-20 season gets under way).

If Francouz requires no learning curve and Grubauer holds strong, the team will have a phenomenal starter-backup tandem on their hands. But if Grubauer happens to struggle out of the gate again — or goes through a mid-season slump for any reason — the team has to bank on absolutely no slip-ups for Francouz at the same time. That can be tough; there’s always the chance that both goaltenders handle their new roles well, but it requires a pure best-case scenario for things to work out.