Backing up the Holtbeast: With Grubuaer Gone, Pheonix Copley Must Prove Himself At the NHL Level

cut (1)Photo: NHL Via Getty Images

For the past three seasons, Capitals’ starting goaltender Braden Holtby was backed up reliably by the play of former fourth-round pick Philipp Grubauer, who proved himself worthy of becoming a number one netminder in the NHL. With a Stanley Cup win under his belt, and little left to accomplish as  backup, the Capitals traded Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche, leaving the man set to replace him under pressure to succeed at the NHL level.

Originally signed by the Capitals as an undrafted free agent in 2014, he spent time with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears before being traded to the St. Louis Blues in the trade that brought right wing T.J. Oshie to Washington. Copley made his NHL debut with the Blues during the 2015-16 season, and played in one more game the following season, before being re-acquired by the Caps in a trade involving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017. In a combined two big league games played (both with St. Louis with start), Copley went 0-1-0, with a save percentage of .829 and goals-against average of 4.32, allowing six goals on a combined 35 shots.

While the sample size at the highest level of professional hockey is very small, it does raise some concerns about Copley’s ability to handle the advanced skill of NHL players, compared to that of those at the AHL. While his results in his two NHL games isn’t impressive, Copley’s cumulative results in the AHL are much more encouraging. In a total of 145 games played, Copley has compiled a 73-48-15 record, with a .913 save percentage and goals-against average of 2.55, with nine shutouts, in four AHL seasons with both the Bears and Chicago Wolves. Copley has served as Hershey’s primary starter during his time with the team and in 14 Calder Cup Playoff games played with the Bears in 2015 and 2017, Copley has a record of 8-5-0, with an impressive 2.04 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, and one shutout.

While he has played just two games in the NHL, Copley has likely benefited from working under former Capitals goalie coach and Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn (who is now with the New York Islanders) over the last few seasons during training camp and the team’s annual Development Camp for prospects, and having also served as Holtby’s backup at times last season, has likely gained some valuable lessons playing alongside one of the game’s premier goaltenders. With Grubauer, more or less the team’s safety net in goal (no pun intended), now gone, it will be on Copley to perform to the expectations that the Capitals have set forth for him. Whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen.

By Michael Fleetwood

About Michael Fleetwood

Michael Fleetwood was born into a family of diehard Capitals fans and has been watching games as long as he can remember. He was born the year the Capitals went to their first Stanley Cup Final, and is a diehard Caps fan, the owner of the very FIRST Joe Beninati jersey and since then, has met Joe himself. His favorite player became former Capital Nate Schmidt after he met Schmidt in a Hershey hotel while in Hershey PA to see the Bears play, shortly after Schmidt was injured during a conditioning stint. Michael is also a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Orioles, and enjoys photography, watching WildEarth TV's SafariLive live safaris, and watching animals in his spare time. (Photo by Adam Vingan in 2014 at the Capitals Development Camp).
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