Dark Side of GM McPhee’s Goalie Development Program Revealed

Posted April 1, 2012

Philipp Grubauer has benefited from McPhee's program, but at what cost? (Photo Credit: M. Richter)

For years, Washington has been drafting goalies like they’re going out of style – Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, and Steffen Soberg being the most recent names on the list.  As this year’s version of hockey dominos has demonstrated, goaltending depth is a good thing.  But there’s another reason behind GM George McPhee’s overflowing stable of goaltending talent, and it’s more than a little alarming.

We all know that George McPhee believes in pushing the envelope when necessary (just look at his salary-cap machinations over the last few years).  Developing top-notch goalies to fill the Washington void is no exception.  If there are a few casualties along the way, that’s just a cost of the game.

Rising star Philipp Grubauer may well be on his way to becoming one of those casualties.  The German-born goalie is part of the second generation of McPhee’s development program, which was started under Arturs Irbe and has continued under Dave Prior and Olie Kolzig.  The program incorporates advanced training and counseling for prospects combined with a genetic modification regimen designed to build upon their specific strengths.  In Grubauer’s case, the selected enhancement regimen was drawn from the praying mantis (Mantis religiosa).

According to a source close to the Capitals organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Grubauer’s problems began after a poor reaction to his third injection series, which was administered in early February, 2011.  His body rejected the suspension used to administer the retrovirus, a modified version of the previously successful vehicle used in the enhancement procedures for earlier candidates in the program, and his immune system temporarily went into overdrive.  It was six months before his body had recovered sufficiently, and the story released by his team (the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL) was that he had suffered a severe case of mononucleosis.

Despite the setback, Grubauer’s enhancement series proved successful in its overall aim – his debut season with the  South Carolina Stingrays resulted in top-3 finish within the ECHL for goals against average (2.22), as well as both rookie of the month and goaltender of the month honors.  Everything was going well, up until a few weeks ago when another problem arose – this time, it was a side effect of the physiological changes that have given him such flexibility and strength, with one of the tendons in his wrist lengthening unexpectedly.  He has since undergone surgery to correct the problem, but is again sidelined through the playoffs.

Steffen Soberg, shortly after being drafted (Photo Credit: Bridget Samuels)

Grubauer is not the first goalie in McPhee’s program to suffer setbacks as a direct result of the experimental enhancements, though his reactions have been the most severe.  Semyon Varlamov was the first goaltender to take part in the more aggressive phases of the development program, and it is widely believed within the organization that it contributed directly to his serial injury problems while playing for the Capitals.  Avian DNA may have made him lighter on his feet, but it also made him (even more) susceptible to joint displacement.

Despite the ample evidence for concern, the program is not without its success stories.  As a result, it is unlikely to be discontinued so long as McPhee remains in control of the Capitals locker room.  Michal Neuvirth has benefited extensively from the incorporation of Felis silvestris catus into his genetic structure, and increased aggression is a small price to pay for the enhanced strength that Braden Holtby has gained from becoming a bit more Bear-like (Ursus arctos, to be specific).  Steffen Soberg is still too new to the program for definitive results, but he has thusfar shown no ill effect from his own exposure to the Meerkat genome.

Like any good experiment, the Capitals have kept a few unmodified goalies in their system to function as “controls.”  Both Dany Sabourin and Tomas Vokoun were deemed too old for gene therapy when they were acquired by the Caps, and ATO and ECHL-only signings have been similarly left unaltered due to the perceived cost/benefit.  But the fact that the experiments continue at all leads us to ask the inevitable question – what is the real price of winning, and are we willing to pay it?  For now, that answer appears to be yes, that players are commodities to be used for the good of the parent organization.  Should the Caps suffer another setback such as Grubauer’s, however, we owe it to the players to reassess.  We should never forget that they’re human beings, just like us (except better at hockey, and possibly genetically modified).

Steffen Soberg & Philipp Grubauer, expected to be the (far-reaching) future of Capitals Goaltending. Photo Credit: Bridget Samuels.

And in case there was any confusion, HAPPY APRIL FOOL’S DAY from those of us at Capitals Outsider!