Caps net another star in the making

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Get your atlas out. OK, now draw a line from Rosenheim, Germany, to Belleville, Ontario, to Windsor, to Kingston to North Charleston, S.C., to Reading, Pa., to Hershey, Pa.

Now you have a sense of the path taken by a young netminder named Philipp Grubauer.

You may not have heard of the Washington Capitals' 2010 fourth-round draft pick -- yet.

But the self-composed, well-traveled Grubauer is already turning heads at the AHL level, and the Capitals, awash in young goaltending talent, may soon find themselves in the enviable position of having a glut of goaltending prospects if Grubauer keeps up his current level of play.

Now the challenge is finding enough ice time to ensure the development of Grubauer, while the rest of the young Washington netminders continue on a desirable arc.

In a perfect world, the 20-year-old Grubauer would be splitting time at the AHL level with veteran Dany Sabourin, learning the ins and outs of being a professional netminder and perhaps challenging to be the Bears’ go-to guy.

But we all know hockey is not a perfect universe and last season’s NHL playoff sensation, Braden Holtby, was returned to Hershey with the NHL in lockout mode, which means Grubauer was initially dispatched to Reading of the ECHL.

But when Holtby got his bell rung in a game last week, Grubauer returned to Hershey and was outstanding for the Bears in an overtime loss in his first AHL start.

Holtby, who remains out of action as the team cautiously watches his recovery, remains the poster boy for seizing the moment.

When injuries to veteran Tomas Vokoun and another former AHL standout, Michal Neuvirth, necessitated Holtby’s promotion to NHL action late last season, he responded in spectacular fashion.

The 23-year-old native of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, with the curious pregame routines and nervous ticks was the starting netminder when the Caps opened the playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. He was the catalyst to the Caps’ seven-game upset of the Bruins, a series won in overtime on the road. He very nearly replicated that performance in the second round, as the Caps were edged in seven games by the top-seeded New York Rangers. In 14 postseason games, Holtby turned in a .935 save percentage and 1.95 GAA.

It was a performance not lost on Grubauer.

“Of course I want to have that opportunity. I want to play in the NHL,” Grubauer told ESPN.com this week.

Since leaving junior hockey, where he played with three teams, Grubauer has relished working with longtime goaltending coach Dave Prior and former NHLer Olaf Kolzig, who joined the Caps’ coaching staff a year ago.

“They’ve helped me so much,” Grubauer said.

The reports from Prior and Kolzig have been glowing, as well.

Washington GM George McPhee said Prior has been enthusiastic about Grubauer’s maturation and evolution as a netminder.

“Dave Prior told me this guy is even better than we thought,” McPhee told ESPN.com. “That’s all good news.”

The constant moving around has been difficult in terms of putting down any kind of roots: “It kind of sucks to move around like that,” Grubauer admitted. But he is embracing the idea of competing with other talented youngsters for a chance to play.

“That’s what makes you better,” he said. “That’s what gets you to the next level. Always work hard and be ready.”

It’s a level that appears to be getting closer all the time.