The ECHL and the ECHL All-Star Game has quietly become one of the top showcases and grooming grounds for upcoming National Hockey League goaltenders.
Just ask the Washington Capitals.
Since 2009, a Capital’s goaltending prospect has been selected to every ECHL All-Star Game. And on Wednesday, Philipp Grubauer will join current Caps goalies Braden Holtby (2010) and Michal Neuvirth (2009) as the latest Capitals' prospects to represent the organization in the ECHL’s showcase event when he hits the ice at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, CO.
“It’s a really big honor and it’s why I came down here because the All-Star Game is not every weekend and not everybody gets to go,” the 21-year-old said. “So I came down and it’s a big honor to be the next one in this organization.”
Wednesday night will most likely be Grubauer’s last game in the ECHL after being called up to the Capitals' AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa. on Jan. 7. Prior to joining the Bears he was 19-5-1 with a 2.30 GAA and a .912 save percentage in 26 games for the Reading Royals. Washington’s 2010 fourth round selection (112th overall) was slated to start the year in Hershey before the NHL lockout created a log jam in net for the Bears with Holtby becoming Hershey’s primary goalie.
“I was frustrated, but I couldn’t change anything so I just rolled with it,” said Grubauer said. “It’s what you have to do sometimes. I wanted to make the best out of it and give the guys in Reading a good chance to win every game.”
Reading coach Larry Courville compared Grubauer to Miikka Kiprusoff and said Reading would not be in first place in the Eastern Conference if not for the 6'1”, 184-pound goalie.
“Of all the goalies I have seen this year he has definitely been the best guy,” Courville said. “He reads the play extremely well and makes the saves most goalies in our league can’t make. He is definitely a goalie that can go play in the NHL at some point.”
Grubauer grew up in Rosenheim, Germany where he looked up to his hometown idol and former Olympic goalie, Robert Muller. The two-time Olympian played in eight world championships and was inducted into the German Hall of Fame after he passed away at 28 years of age from a brain tumor.
Grubauer used the international stage to really burst onto the scene at the 2010 World Junior Championship when he led the Germans to the Pool B title by allowing three goals in five games before winning the CHL’s Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL later that year. The Capitals then drafted him that spring.
“It’s (one of) the toughest cups to win probably and we pulled it off,” he said. “We had an amazing team with Windsor and that is the thing you always remember.”
Since being drafted by the Caps, Grubauer has altered his playing style to try and adjust to the North American game. Instead of flopping on the ice like he was accustomed to in Germany, the Capitals have insisted the German native work on staying on his feet more, becoming more patient and learning to read the play.
Grubauer has certainly made strides over the last few years, even gaining the praise of fellow German NHL goalie and Capital’s associate coach, Olie Kolzig.
“It’s amazing,” Grubauer said. “Olie is a young goalie coach but he has played so many years in the NHL and he knows what he is talking about. We have the best goaltending coaches in the league.”
Kolzig has been working with Grubauer on his puck playing ability, a skill that the new Hershey Bear’s goaltender knows is a necessity if he hopes to succeed at the next level.
“Puck handling is my most concern right now and having a little bit more patience,” Grubauer said. “You make a mistake up there and (the puck is) in.”
Grubauer may become the next ECHL goalie to reach the NHL level after registering a 23-13-5 record with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage for the South Carolina Sting Rays last year in his first professional season.
Along with Holtby and Neuvirth, some other former ECHL All-Stars who have gone on to play in the NHL include Dallas's Richard Bachman (2010), Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk (2007) and Phoenix’s Mike Smith (2003).
The ECHL goalie pedigree continues to produce star-studded netminders; just last year, the ECHL saw alumnus Jonathan Quick lead the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup championship, and the future is bright with other goaltending prospects such as Gwinnett’s Mike Lee (Phoenix) and South Carolina’s Ryan Zapolski participating in this week’s All-Star festivities.
Courville says the NHL appreciates the value of having another league to develop its players along with the AHL.
“The NHL sees the value and most teams in the NHL now have five or six goalies in their system that they look to develop and try and get them to the National Hockey League,” said Reading’s head coach. “They see it as a positive and they see how good our league has become. (Goalies) see a lot of minutes and they progress and their game gets better. ”
Looking back at his ECHL career, Grubauer said he will never forget his last game for Reading this year, a 3-1 victory against Wheeling in which he stopped 27 of 28 shots.
“Everything in Reading has been awesome,” Grubauer said. “The whole organization and the team. I have never been on a team that great where everybody was having fun and everybody was working for each other.”
But after competing in tonight’s ECHL All-Star Skills Competition and in tomorrow’s All-Star game it will be time for Grubauer to close the book on his ECHL career and turn his focus towards the AHL.
His number one goal?
“Just win every game,” smiled Grubauer.
Follow Justin Felisko at Twitter via @jfelisko