New faces, fresh contracts and solid draft picks are the most important moves the Colorado Avalanche made in the offseason. Now that training camp is over and preseason games have begun, one question remains. Are all the pieces in place to contend for the NHL’s most prized trophy? One of the biggest question marks lies between the pipes. The 2019-20 season will be goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s first as a starter.
Coming to the Avalanche weeks after winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, the German-born goaltender left being Braden Holtby’s back-up to secure a spot supporting Semyon Varlamov. Following the trade, general manager Joe Sakic told USA Today, “We all feel that he’s ready to take the next step and become a No. 1. We’re excited to have two No. 1 goalies.”
The Varlamov/Grubauer Show
Varlamov was plagued with lower-body injuries during his time with the Avalanche. Although he compiled a 163-137-29 record in 340 games and holds the team’s highest single-season wins record and save percentage, he missed a significant amount of the 2016-17 season due to injury. Determined to return with a vengeance and get the Avalanche back on the playoff track in the 2017-18 season, they snuck in only to lose in the first round to the Nashville Predators.
Following the dismay of an early postseason exit, Sakic felt it necessary to address the goaltending situation. Since the Avalanche haven’t had a solid, go-to goaltender in net since Patrick Roy, management felt it necessary to look to the future and not put all their eggs in one basket with Varlamov.
With Grubauer on the squad, the 2018-19 season started with high hopes. Although they were still working on developing young talent to fill the gaps in their scoring ability and defense, their netminding was a repeating wave gaining momentum and crashing into the shore.
The first 25 games Varlamov started, he only won 11 contests. Comparatively, Grubauer started 15 games and notched 8 wins. However, there was still no definite starter. The worst was yet to be seen.
January and February were abysmal with the team suffering an eight-game losing streak; six losses for Varlamov and two for Grubauer. A bit of light shone on the team as they seemed to turn things around, winning four straight games during the second half of February with Varlamov in net for three.
They returned to the see-saw win/loss category through the first half of March, but then experienced another glimmer of hope. A four-game winning streak at the end of March proved to be a boost to the team with Grubauer starting every game and earning one shutout. After an OT loss to the Blackhawks on March 24, 2019, he won his next two starts.
Even though the last four games were split with a win and loss for each goalie, coach Jared Bednar and management decided to start Grubauer in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the team was shutout in Game 1 but came back to win the next four, taking the first round against the top-seeded Calgary Flames. Aside from two close overtime wins, he dominated the other two contests allowing only three goals by the Flames while the Avalanche scored 11.
The second round against the San Jose Sharks was an intense matchup extending a full seven games. He played solid in the Game 2, 4 and 6 wins, but the questionable offside call in a deciding Game 7 loss deflated the team and ended their playoff run.
In Grubauer’s 32 starts for the Avalanche in the 2018-19 season, he posted 18 wins and 14 losses with 3 shutouts and 5 overtime losses. In comparison to Varlamov’s 48 starts earning 20 wins and 28 losses with two shutouts, seven overtime losses and one shootout loss, the answer was not particularly clear on who the starter would be for the 2019-20 season.
Grubauer’s Time to Shine
The Russian netminder was in the last year of his contract going into the 2018-19 season, so it made sense for Sakic to lighten up the cap for the Avalanche. Varlamov signing with the Islanders allowed management to retain some key players in the offseason and provide enough cap space to keep Mikko Rantanen in Colorado for the long-term (which is STILL to be determined as of this writing).
Grubauer has playoff experience even though he didn’t play in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Washington Capitals. He did start the playoffs but was pulled during Game 2 and replaced by Braden Holtby, who continued on as starter to win the Stanley Cup in the 2017-18 season.
With his combined playoff experience and showmanship for the Avalanche, it seems he fits like a glove. His teammates are secure in his abilities and show promise to his position as their starting goalie. Following the win against the San Jose Sharks on May 2, 2019, alternate captain and defenseman Erik Johnson spoke of Grubauer as “probably one of the top goalies in the league right now [with] the way he’s played lately. So I wouldn’t want anyone else right now. He’s making us feel confident.”
The fans have accepted and embraced him as their starter, as well. Chants of “GRUUUU” ring out with every stop and amazing save he makes at the Pepsi Center. “It’s something that’s been with me and the fans for a long time now, which is really special,” Grubauer told the Denver Post in April of this year. “I hear it for sure.” (from ‘The secret to Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer’s redemption in Colorado?’ The Denver Post, 04/11/2019)
Players, fans and management alike are excited and anxious to experience his step up to the plate, or net, in this case. Czech-born Pavel Francouz will be backing him up and there’s a chance another tandem could develop. However, Francouz doesn’t have much NHL experience and is still getting his feet wet in the North American professional realm. Give Grubauer time to shine and there’s a good chance “GRUUUU” will be ringing out deep into the postseason.