The measure of a goaltender when he’s at his best, in the National Hockey League, often makes the biggest impact to fulfill dreams, or shatter them.
The Seattle Kraken were nine wins away from fulfilling the same dream as the 31 other teams in the National Hockey League this past season. The remarkable thing: they almost did it in just their second season (yeah, Vegas got to the Cup Final in year one, but that’s for a different day).
The man in the middle of all of this: Philipp Grubauer.
“Towards the end of the season, he grabbed the ball again and he was really good for us in the playoffs,” said Kraken general manager Ron Francis shortly after the conclusion of the season. “We’re pleased with the season he had and happy for him. And we hope that he's now set kind of the standard where he thinks he can be at and hopefully starts there and improves even more moving forward.”
If the games the 31 year old Grubauer delivered was a sign of things to come, the Kraken indeed have a permanent “next level” move in store. He struggled mightily in year one of a six-year, $35.4 million contract, recording an .889 save percentage. Though the regular season this year was only a few ticks better at .889, his game took nearly a complete 180 degree turn during the stretch drive, and the postseason.
The Kraken will need more of that next season, with question marks galore in net. Martin Jones was a spectacular offseason bargain pickup last summer but is set to re-enter free agency with father time ticking at his age of 33. Chris Driedger is healthy and a likely candidate to back up Grubauer again but hasn’t played in an NHL game since last season.
Could Joey Daccord take the next step as a backup, flourishing in Coachella Valley? The signs are there, but his current contract is set to expire.
Whatever the scenario, the signs of Grubauer fully seizing control of the number one role are there. Jones, brilliant early in the season but whose game began to tail off by March, was relegated to a backup role as Grubauer took the reins in some of the most important games of the season. Starting on March 2, Grubauer played in 15 of the final 22 games to help the Kraken clinch a Stanley Cup Playoff berth, going 9-3-1 with a .903 save percentage. That last stat may seem a little more pedestrian than suggested, but he allowed no more than two goals in each of those wins.
Simply put, in that frame with Grubauer in net, he was terrific.
And he wants more of it right away.
“I would love to start tomorrow with training camp, to be honest,” Grubauer said to 93.3 KJR-FM at exit meetings in May.
He’s a savage competitor who has tasted what success is like in a Kraken uniform and is ready for more. For example, take game seven in Denver, to complete the shocking opening round upset, with how he viewed an opportunity to play a major role in eliminating the defending Cup champs:
“I just had fun out there,” said Grubauer. “That’s sometimes how you’re successful and be the best version of yourself.”
Here are five signature games from Grubauer that set the standard:
1. Game 7, first round at Colorado: It doesn’t get better than this, based on performance, and based on the stakes. The Kraken were in their first ever “win or go home” game, staring in the teeth of the defending Stanley Cup champion, and playing on their ice in the higher altitude. Grubauer didn’t just stick it to his old team, he drop kicked them shockingly into the summer, and arguably played his best game in a Kraken uniform in a do-or-die situation. Grubauer made 33 saves, many of them early under extremely high stress against the Avalanche who threw everything in desperation at the Kraken net.
Grubauer left the building as the second star of the night (only upstaged by Oliver Bjorkstrand’s two goals and first star effort), and a legacy victory for his resume and Kraken lore.
2. Game, 7, second round at Dallas: The result here was much different, but Grubauer was the difference between a 2-1 thriller that went down to the final seconds, and the Kraken getting blown out of the water just several minutes after the national anthem. Dallas lapped the Kraken in high danger chances, 17-7, and 14-5 through two periods. Despite all of that, he kept the Kraken to within a 1-0 deficit in the second intermission. Dallas skated away from the handshake line with the series win, but Grubauer nearly worked overtime to rally the Kraken.
He carries a game .951 save percentage in two game sevens with Seattle. That’s money goaltending.
3. Kraken 3-2 win at Colorado, Oct. 21: This is going to be a theme of this entry: Grubauer versus his former employer. There’s no bad blood. But a tried-and-true method of motivation in hockey, since the dawn of time, is “have some fun at your former team’s expense.”
Or in other words, paraphrasing Michael Corleone from The Godfather: it’s not personal. It’s strictly business.
Anyhow – Grubauer had a slow start to 2022-23. He gave up ten goals in his first two appearances, an overtime loss on opening night at Anaheim and a 5-1 blowout at home against Carolina. But in their first test against the defending Cup champs in Denver, Francis saw something at that day’s morning skate which gave him hope.
“I don't go to a lot of morning skates,” said Francis. “I went to the one in Colorado early in the year and I thought, ‘he really looks good.’ And then for 50 minutes in that game, he was outstanding.”
Grubauer was well on his way to a stunning upset of the Avalanche, with several of his 17 saves coming from the “tough” category before he left the game with a lower body injury, and never seen again for a month. The Kraken had enough in the tank to squeak by Colorado, but it was the first taste of Grubauer’s capability, this past season, against a high-octane opponent.
4. Kraken 3-2 win vs. Washington, Dec. 1: Ah, there it is again – another former employer left in Grubauer’s wake. Funny how that works out. But for several months into the season, this was a hallmark win of a surging Kraken season, and it took a little bit for them to dig out of a 2-0 hole in Alex Ovechkin’s only visit to Seattle.
Grubauer was a bit part of that rally – 21 saves for the second star of the game, with nothing getting by him for the final 45:56 of regulation. Matty Beniers, of course, was the star of the show with his overtime winner setting Seattle ablaze just seven seconds after puck drop, but Grubauer laid a large chunk of the win’s foundation in place.
5. Game 1, Kraken at Colorado: Are the Kraken going to tell Grubauer next season, every matchup is against the Avalanche?
Ok, tongue’s out of the cheek now. But despite the 46-win Kraken authoring the biggest turnaround in NHL history for an expansion team in their second season, they were still being treated like Cinderella before going to the ball, and by some prognostications, a series that could have been over in three.
So, if game one was supposed to be a coronation, the Kraken turned it into supreme disruption. They scored the first goal of the game, and Grubauer turned Denver’s party upside down with 34 saves, and 27 saves in the final 40 minutes. The Avs from there were chasing the Kraken nearly all series, and Grubauer’s work in the opener sent a shocking message:
Prepare for shock, Kraken in seven. They became the first team in Stanley Cup Playoff history to upset the defending champs in their first ever series appearance, with Grubauer playing nearly every minute of it.