Logically speaking, when your starter returns from injury, you go right back to playing him. However, what happens when you’re no longer sure he’s your starter? Like the Colorado Avalanche with regard to Philipp Grubauer, after backup Pavel Francouz played so well in his absence?
Francouz Shines with or Without Grubauer
To be fair, it’s not like Francouz sealed the Vezina Trophy or anything during Grubauer’s absence due to a lower-body injury. For that to have happened, Grubauer would have had to have been out much longer than since-mid February. Nevertheless, Francouz played incredibly well in that span, going 8-2-2 with a .920 save percentage.
It would be one thing had Francouz’s stellar play been an anomaly relative to the rest of his season. As it happens, overall Francouz went 21-7-4 with a .923 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against average. More to the point, Grubauer was 18-12-4 with a .916 save percentage and 2.63 GAA. Grubauer played 36 total games this season. Francouz played 34.
Needless to say, lines between the starter and backup have been significantly blurred. If this were anything other than a team setting, battle lines would be drawn instead. Obviously, that’s not exactly the case, as each goalie wants the team to win, whatever it takes, objectively speaking. They would just presumably prefer it to be them doing the winning, though.
Grubauer Ready to Return to Action
With Grubauer theoretically ready to go once play resumes, head coach Jared Bednar is going to have to make a tough decision. Just who gets the net, as the NHL moves closer to making its 24-team playoff proposal a reality to finish the season?
Rust for Grubauer is about as much of a factor as a short drizzle a day after a 40-night flood has ended (or however long the league has been on lockdown). Yeah, it’s more rain, but does it really matter when compared to Francouz’s somewhat-shorter layoff? Not really. So, Bednar and the Avalanche are going to have to make a decision based primarily on the goalie they think gives them the best chance at winning, all else being equal.
Grubauer is no slouch, but there’s a very real possibility the answer is Francouz. To a certain extent, the Avalanche must already understand that. After all, Grubauer has only one year left on his deal after this one, while they re-signed Francouz to a two-year, $4 million extension in February after he broke out for the Avalanche in his first complete season in the league, albeit as a soon-to-be 30-year-old. Age is nothing but a number, especially relative to the team’s chances this season, with Francouz playing as well as he is, though.
Francouz a Legitimate 1B… at Least
For example, soon-to-be 40-year-old goalie Ryan Miller, one of the best backups in the NHL, made only $1.125 million this season, playing for the Anaheim Ducks. Other stalwart No. 2 goalies like Boston Bruin Jaroslav Halak and Dallas Star Anton Khudobin make around the same amount as Francouz will. They too, like Francouz, are more accurately 1B goalies behind Tuukka Rask and Ben Bishop respectively. So, there’s a case that you don’t sign a backup to that kind of money unless you envision them being a potential starter.
Francouz certainly is capable. He’s done nothing but prove that up to now. The playoffs, regardless of the format they end up taking, should be no different. And, while No. 1 goalies need more endurance than what it takes to play all of a team’s games over the single month Grubauer was out, Francouz has been a starter in other leagues. So, why not in the NHL? Why not now?
The Avs made the wise decision to ride Francouz while Grubauer was out. They could have theoretically gone out and gotten someone else at the trade deadline. Instead, they stayed relatively quiet, acquiring depth goalie Michael Hutchinson, presumably as an insurance policy, and forward Vladislav Namestnikov.
Whether it general manager Joe Sakic’s intention or not, the message was clear: There’s no problem with the status quo. That includes Francouz, who had won the first three of a personal six-game winning streak heading into the deadline. He effectively rewarded Sakic for the confidence he showed in him by stealing the show… and maybe so much more.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.