Kraken headliner Philipp Grubauer is admittedly still somewhat surprised to find himself the face of the NHL’s newest franchise.
Grubauer tried until “the last minute” to stay with the Colorado Avalanche before the Kraken swooped in and signed the free-agent goalie to a six-year, $35.4 million contract. Now he’s the Kraken’s biggest star and knows he’ll be counted on to sell the game here much as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury did with the Vegas Golden Knights four years ago.
“The way he came in and what they did was incredible,” Grubauer said Friday by Zoom from his native Germany. “So that’s the goal, right? To be that guy, to go to the playoffs and to win the Cup. They went to the finals that first year. Obviously, there’s a lot to do, and everybody’s coming into a new city, and the team has never existed.
“So there’s lots and lots of work to do, but it’s going to be an exciting journey.”
There had been initial skepticism about just how surprised Grubauer was to wind up with the Kraken. After signing Wednesday, he did an overseas television interview with TSN in Canada and was asked whether the Kraken had spoken to him last week during the team’s exclusive 72-hour negotiation window with free agents left unprotected ahead of the expansion draft.
It wasn’t clear whether Grubauer fully heard or understood the question when he answered: “For sure, yeah, there was some interest there, and we had interest, too.”
Colorado actually had protected Grubauer in the draft, so the Kraken speaking to him in advance would have violated NHL tampering rules. Kraken general manager Ron Francis said Wednesday he hadn’t spoken to Grubauer’s camp last week. Friday, Grubauer clarified that his first contact with the Kraken came after the free-agency period opened Wednesday.
“Never experienced that craziness,” Grubauer said. “Everybody was calling once the window opens up, so it was a little wild hour and definitely a crazy experience.”
One difference between Grubauer and Fleury, who beat him out for the Vezina Trophy last season as the league’s top goaltender, is the former Vegas netminder appeared in 64 of his team’s 82 games in that debut Golden Knights season — a 78% rate far higher than Grubauer’s career norms.
Only two seasons ago did Grubauer play even half his team’s contests. Then, last season, he played a career high 71% of the Avalanche’s pandemic-truncated 56-game schedule after an early injury to backup Pavel Francouz.
But the Kraken plans on Grubauer playing less now in a tandem with goalie Chris Driedger. The presence of Driedger, 27, who signed for three years, $10.5 million ahead of the expansion draft as the anticipated No. 1 goalie, is what caught so many off guard when Grubauer was signed a week later.
With Grubauer being the more elite and proven starter, the Kraken is paying $9.4 million a season combined for him and Driedger — 11.5% of the team’s salary cap space. Francis said he expects Driedger will be used more than a typical backup, and he’d be surprised if Grubauer plays 70% of the games again.
Grubauer said Friday he enjoyed the heavier workload last season, posting a career-best 1.95 goals-against average — second-best in the league — and .922 save percentage.
“Obviously it was a more intense season than any other,” Grubauer said. “But you learned the flow. You were constantly playing.”
Grubauer said his goal is always playing at least half the season and to feel fresh entering the playoffs.
“So, it’s always good to have a good tandem,” he said. “I don’t think one guy can play 70 games and be fresh for the playoffs. … It’s important to have two guys.”
Former longtime Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, a co-owner of the Tri-City Americans junior team, was one of the first to congratulate the netminder Wednesday. Kolzig, who lives in Kennewick, was a goaltending and professional-development coach with the Capitals throughout Grubauer’s time there from 2012-18 and said he’s a marquee addition Kraken fans will appreciate.
“Initially, he’s pretty quiet whether it’s with a new goalie coach or a new teammate,” Kolzig said. “He just seems kind of quiet, but as he opens up and gets to know you, he’s very outgoing — somebody you could easily go to dinner with and have conversations with.
“And his teammates play hard for him,” Kolzig added. “He’s a very tough competitor, very athletic. So I think Seattle’s getting a guy that it could definitely build a franchise around.”
Kolzig said Grubauer easily could have played more games with the Capitals had he not been stuck behind No. 1 netminder Braden Holtby. He noted that Grubauer, when drafted by the Capitals following his 2009-10 campaign in the Ontario Hockey League, had played roughly 90 preseason, regular-season, playoff and international games that season for the Belleville Bulls, a Windsor Spitfires team that won the Memorial Cup championship and Germany’s national junior team.
But there is an argument for easing Grubauer’s workload, beyond the general NHL trend toward goalie tandems. As good as Grubauer looked carrying the Avalanche’s goaltending last season, he faltered somewhat in the second playoff round — allowing 16 goals on only 69 shots the final three games — as Colorado blew a 2-0 series lead and lost to Vegas in six.
Rumors of Grubauer’s possible departure began soon after, amid doubts the team could re-sign both him and free-agent captain Gabriel Landeskog. When Landeskog re-upped for eight years, $56 million Tuesday night, Grubauer’s exit materialized in rapid fashion.
“I had no idea what he was going to do,” said Kraken winger Joonas Donskoi, who teamed with Grubauer in Colorado before being selected in the expansion draft. “Obviously, I thought that maybe he was going to stay in Colorado.”
Donskoi added: “I was surprised seeing him come to Seattle. But it made me very happy.”
Another big difference between Grubauer and Fleury is style. Though Fleury has made a career of flopping around his crease — occasionally making even routine stops look spectacular — Grubauer plays a more disciplined game.
“I don’t think I’m a flashy goaltender who makes or tries to make the big save,” Grubauer said. “My philosophy is I always want to be in the right position, in every situation, for what’s created around me.”
He’s now in the best situation he could find once the Avalanche wavered. And with Driedger in the goaltending mix, the Kraken hopes the support created around Grubauer positions him to best succeed.