The Washington Capitals announced on Thursday that they had re-signed 25 year-old German goaltender Philipp Grubauer to a one-year, $1.5 million deal that will ostensibly keep the backup goalie in Washington for another season.
The move is a good one in terms of pure hockey sense. Along with 2015-2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, Grubauer helped the Washington Capitals win the 2016-2017 William Jennings Trophy as the best goaltending tandem (in terms of goals against) in the NHL.
In 24 appearances (a significant amount for a non-starter), Grubauer was nothing short of astronomically stellar. In fact, he out-performed Vezina runner-up Holtby in save percentage (.926), even strength save percentage (.937), powerplay save percentage (.883), quality start percentage (.684), and win percentage (.684). Those numbers were some of the best in the league among any goalie strapping on the pads at least twenty times: his save percentage and even strength save percentage were 4th in the NHL, and his powerplay save percentage was 14th. (Stats courtesy of Hockey Reference.)
But with the salary cap tightening around the Capitals like a belt after a greasy fast food meal, Grubauer was rightly assumed to be a valuable trading chip for a Washington team that desperately needed to shave dollars somewhere. Many assumed the Vegas Golden Knights would claim Grubauer in the expansion draft, but they obviously had other ideas (*cough, Nate Schmidt, cough*).
Instead, the Capitals chose to re-sign Grubauer to a one-year extension, nearly doubling his salary to $1.5 million per year.
At face value, this seems...odd. With the Capitals so strapped for cash that they shipped out third-leading scorer Marcus Johansson in a move that enraged many Capitals fans, confused pundits, and led to the general consensus that GM Brian MacLellan done goofed, lots of level-headed, clear-eyed, drug-test-passing observers assumed that the backup goalie position would be the position where the purse strings had a healthy chance to tighten. With Braden Holtby as close to a reliable sure-thing at starter as exists in today’s NHL and playing in a staggering 202 of the Capitals’ 246 regular season games over the last three seasons, ponying up more money for Grubauer at backup felt about as likely as taking out a reverse mortgage to pay for another Ferrari.
And yet, the Capitals did exactly that, and on “bad” terms. If they believed Grubauer is an elite NHL starter-quality goalie, locking him up at $1.5 million for several years wouldn’t be so bad an idea. But with his new contract metered at just one single year, and leaving a whole other year of RFA eligibility out to rot in the July sun, wasted like a frat boy, the Capitals must have other plans.
And those plans are almost certainly to trade Grubauer before the deadline this season.
This team would have $611K in cap space. So, what happens when you need an injury call up? Still think they could ship out Gru for Copley pic.twitter.com/Q29eoeg1uF— Pat Holden (@pfholden) July 6, 2017
As Patrick Holden observed, the contract leaves the Capitals with just $611,000 beneath the salary cap. If the Capitals need to call up an emergency injury replacement from Hershey, the difference between the player’s one-way and two-way salaries (what he makes if called up the NHL vs. if he stays in the AHL) must not put the Capitals over the limit. With an NHL league minimum of $650,000, this would almost certainly happen if Washington needs to call up more than one player this season (which they will, because ouch, hockey).
With cheaper goaltending options available - Washington just re-signed Hershey goalie Pheonix Copley to a 2-year, $1.3 million deal and former Ducks starting goalie Jhonas Enroth still a 29 year-old unrestricted free agent making just $750,000 last year - MacLellan must plan to get value out of Grubauer that has nothing to do with him playing goalie in a bright red Capitals sweater.
Back to that term. One year may seem like a short time - hell, one year ago I was thinner, funnier, and better looking, probably - but the fact that Grubauer will still be an RFA at the end of it is significant. The team’s brass clearly expect Grubauer’s value to rise during the season. This offseason, the market was flooded with a glut of talented, cheap free agent goalies, and they have pretty much all now been snapped up. Some of those goalies will not pan out, and some will get injured. When those calls start coming in, as teams realize, “Holy crap, wait, we’re actually contenders?” you can expect to see Grubauer’s trade value rise above whatever the unacceptably low amount it was this offseason.
And when those teams call, they’ll even get offered a warranty, of sorts: Grubauer will still be an RFA after this season, so they will retain his rights and not have to fight off the lucrative vultures of unrestricted free agency.
Now, how attractive does that goalie sound? Perhaps the most promising non-starter in the NHL, making more-than-backup but less-than-starter money, with his RFA rights in tact?
That’s a valuable trading piece, and the Capitals just made him more valuable with this contract.