Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis was at peace with his goaltending situation coming out of the expansion draft.
In Chris Driedger, he had a promising 27-year-old netminder who really hit his stride in Florida, outperforming big-ticket Sergei Bobrovsky and putting up even better numbers than late-season rookie sensation Spencer Knight. Washington’s Vitek Vanecek, a 25-year-old stopper who saved the Capitals’ bacon when highly touted sophomore Ilya Samsonov struggled, had a similar success story. And Ottawa’s Joey Daccord provided Francis with another 25-year-old with raw potential.
But fate – and the salary cap – proved allies to Francis and the Kraken, opening the door for the summer’s biggest free-agent netminder to stroll into town and don that sweet new Seattle jersey. That was 29-year-old Philipp Grubauer.
Grubauer, of course, is coming off the best season of his NHL career, one that saw him finish third in Vezina Trophy voting while playing for the high-flying Colorado Avalanche. But the Avs had to re-sign captain Gabriel Landeskog and dole out a big-dollar contract to all-world defenseman Cale Makar, leaving the team without enough cap space for its No. 1 goalie.
After officially losing Grubauer to the Kraken, the Avs traded for Arizona goalie Darcy Kuemper. So, what did Francis like about Grubauer? “The fact he was available?” said the GM with a laugh. “We and a lot of teams didn’t think he was going to get there. It would be like Landeskog, (Colorado) pushing to the eleventh hour and then getting something done. We were comfortable where we were sitting with our goaltending, but when he became available, we decided to take a run at him, and fortunately, he was interested in us as well.”
Once it became apparent Grubauer was heading to market, several NHL teams expressed an interest, but the Kraken had the most intriguing pitch. “It’s such a cool experience building an organization from the ground up and being there from Day 1,” Francis said. “We have a good story to sell. The league said we had six weeks to get 10,000 season tickets, our fans
accomplished it in 12 minutes. It’s the ownership group and the fact they’re providing the best facilities possible at Climate Pledge Arena and Kraken Community Iceplex (the team’s new practice facility). The city itself is gorgeous and there’s no state income tax, so there are a lot of positive things to sell in Seattle.”
For the netminder himself, there was both excitement and comfort in his new locale. “You can be part of something great here, to be part of history,” Grubauer said. “It’s a new organization, and I knew a lot of people who work here and were picked here, so that made the transition easier, too.”
It’s setting up to be a marvelous year for him. Grubauer is also the clear No. 1 goalie choice for his country’s Olympic squad in February. A proud German national, he grew up in Rosenheim, a Bavarian city near the Austrian border known for beer and Starbulls Rosenheim, the local team. “It’s one of the most traditional hockey towns in the south of Germany,” Grubauer said. “Everybody played soccer growing up, but I played hockey because of my hometown. I played there 14 years before I came to Canada.”
The OHL’s Belleville Bulls first brought Grubauer across the pond at 16 when they took him 25th overall in the 2008 CHL import draft. That year, he made his North American debut while also backstopping newly promoted Germany at the world juniors. A trade to the Windsor Spitfires in 2009-10 added Grubauer to a loaded squad featuring future NHLers Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Cam Fowler and Adam Henrique, which led to an OHL title and a Memorial Cup. That summer, the Washington Capitals tabbed Grubauer in the fourth round of the NHL draft, and after one more season of junior (with the Kingston Frontenacs), it was time for Grubauer to join the pro ranks.
The Capitals’ crease was tough to crack in 2011. Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth were up with the big club, while journeyman Dany Sabourin and some kid named Braden Holtby were holding things down in AHL Hershey. Grubauer was assigned to South Carolina in the ECHL, where he spent all of 2011-12 in his age-20 season. The next year, he bounced between Washington, Hershey and ECHL Reading.
According to agent Allain Roy, the youngster never complained once about his assignments. “I didn’t see it as a step back, I saw it as an opportunity to take my time and develop,” Grubauer said. “The NHL was always the goal, but you have to be patient. Only two guys can play with the AHL team, so technically there’s only three guys in front of you. I took my time, and even if you get sent down it’s not always terrible, you can work on things you might not be able to work on in the AHL or NHL. Without those two years in the ECHL, I don’t think I’d be where I am now.”
Grubauer did work his way up the ranks and eventually became Holtby’s backup in Washington, winning a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018 before being traded to Colorado with cap-dump Brooks Orpik for a second-round pick. After one year as the 1B to Semyon Varlamov, Grubauer became the No. 1 in Colorado, playing on some very good Avs teams that ultimately fell short. The team succumbed to injuries in the 2020 playoff bubble (Grubauer himself missed the last six post-season games), then ran out of steam against Vegas in the 2021 playoffs.
Coming back to the Avs after a campaign that saw Grubauer tie for first in the NHL with seven shutouts while putting up an impressive .922 save percentage seemed an obvious fit for both sides, but Colorado couldn’t make the cap space work. Seattle gave Grubauer a six-year contract with a very reasonable $5.9-million cap hit, while the Avs are on the hook for $3.5 million on the final year of Kuemper’s current deal (Arizona retained $1 million in the trade).
It’s hard not to think about what might have been had the Avs been able to make things work with Grubauer, given how close a team featuring Nathan MacKinnon and Makar as its cornerstones is to a Cup, but Grubauer is philosophical about the situation. “I think their window was last year, maybe this year too,” he said. “But that for me is history now. It was my home for three years and the guys were unbelievable, I made many friends there. Now it starts in Seattle.”
He also gave his former Colorado teammates credit for helping him get to the top tier of Vezina voting. “You need your teammates, right?” he said. “Personally, I worked a lot on small details and reading the game, but my teammates needed to perform, too. It was perfect timing, and the goal this year is to do the same thing with Seattle.”
Indeed, while the Kraken are the new kids on the block in the NHL, expectations are higher for expansion teams now thanks to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle’s own internal desires. Bringing in Grubauer as a marquee free agent was a message that the Kraken don’t intend to use any sort of grace period with their new fans; they want to be competitive right away. “I’m not doing this job to try and get a high draft pick next year, I’d probably lose my job if I did that,” Francis said. “Our focus is on being as good as we can be every year.”
The GM acknowledged it’s going to take time to build up and the biggest challenge is to find high-end centers, because those are the most coveted commodities in the NHL and teams don’t expose those types in expansion drafts. “We think we have six guys who can play the middle and help in that regard and getting Alex Wennberg in free agency helps, too. We’ve got a pretty good group of forwards, defense and goaltenders so we certainly hope to be competitive and build on that.”
While the defense corps – led by stalwarts Mark Giordano and Adam Larsson, the ascending Jamie Oleksiak and promising puck-mover Vince Dunn – looks solid, goaltending is always the last line of defense, and there will be a lot of work for Grubauer and Driedger this season. (Vanecek was traded back to the Capitals for a 2023 second-round draft pick after Grubauer signed).
For Grubauer, one outlet for the pressures of pro hockey has been his love of horses and ranch life. “He’s the only German cowboy I’ve ever met,” Roy said.
The passion began a few years ago when Grubauer’s friend Andreas Seppi brought him out to his ranch in Boulder, Colo., not far from the Avs’ home in Denver. Seppi is an Italian tennis player ranked 88th in the world, with three tournament titles to his name. Not only did he welcome Grubauer to his ranch, but he also took the German NHLer to a few dude ranches around Colorado, and Grubauer caught the bug. “My hometown is actually just outside of Rosenheim, a small village of 300 called Holzham, so I kind of grew up in farm country but never experienced anything with horses,” he said. “I just fell in love with horses and ranching.”
Grubauer doesn’t ride often, as a fall could jeopardize his goaltending career. Still, there is a zen the netminder loves. “It’s the total opposite of what I do all year, where you’re on all the time and you’re in front of cameras and fans,” Grubauer said. “This is a way for me to get my focus through something else. Out there, it’s just you and the horse.”
On top of the spotlight of starting for the NHL’s newest franchise, Grubauer’s year will likely get even more pressure-packed when the Olympics roll around this winter. Unless the global pandemic becomes untenable, NHL players are set to return to the Games in Beijing, and Germany returns as the silver medallists from the 2018 tournament that did not feature NHL players. That meant no Grubauer in net or Leon Draisaitl at center. This time, those stars plus youngsters such as Tim Stutzle and Moritz Seider will be available, and Grubauer loves how hockey development has taken off in his country the past decade. “I’m extremely proud,” he said. “There were always questions about junior, that there’s not enough guys developing and going to the NHL, but it just took some time. Now you see J.J. Peterka, Lukas Reichel, Tim Stutzle and more are coming, which is really big for us. The last Olympics with (coach) Marco Sturm got the ball rolling, and now the national team will be younger but way more exciting. We definitely have a lot of potential for the Olympics and the next few world championships.”
Germany is in the same preliminary pool as Canada, the U.S. and the hosts from China, so making the quarterfinal round will be difficult and reliant on upsetting one of the North American powers (China, meanwhile, will be less than a speedbump). Nonetheless, Grubauer grew up watching the Olympics and puts it on the same plane as the Stanley Cup.
The hype around the Kraken has been feverish in the most positive sense of the word, with tons of fan support and an ownership group clearly committed to giving the players the best facilities possible. He may not have any dude ranches to go to, but Grubauer already got a hot tip for a day trip in Leavenworth, a town two hours east of Seattle designed to look like a traditional Bavarian village. It may not be Rosenheim, but if Grubauer has proven anything in his hockey career, it’s that he can make his home anywhere there’s an opportunity.
Note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News' Meet the New Guy issue.