Jordan Binnington: From almost an afterthought to 'the guy' in Blues' net
Canadian goalie perseveres in minor leagues before saving St. Louis' sour season
Eighteen months ago, Jordan Binnington figured his days in the St. Louis Blues organization were over.
In six years he'd seen the ice just once in the National Hockey League, a one-off relief appearance for then-Blues starter Brian Elliott on Jan. 14, 2016.
Most of his time — 160 appearances — had been spent in the minor leagues since being drafted by the St. Louis in the third round in 2011.
Today, the 25-year-old is the hottest goaltender in the NHL, having posted nine straight wins to set a franchise record for a rookie goalie before the Blues' 5-2 loss to Dallas on Thursday. Despite that loss, he's almost single-handedly put St. Louis right back into the playoff picture.
Binnington began the 2016-17 season as the starter for the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves, but by late December he'd lost the job to prospect Ville Husso after being suspended one game for his part in a line brawl. Husso reeled off eight consecutive victories and Binnington didn't appear in a game until Jan. 22.
"I thought my time in St. Louis might be done, that they had kind of moved on from me," Binnington told CBC Sports before his 29 saves in Tuesday night's 3-2 overtime win over Toronto.
A month later, goalie Pheonix Copley was traded to the Washington Capitals and Binnington was back in the mix in Chicago. He was playing well, but head coach Craig Berube (now the Blues' bench boss) gave Husso the bulk of play late in the regular season and in the playoffs.
"I didn't lose in regulation for 14 games or something and still wasn't the guy. I think it was an experience I needed to go through, getting shoved aside, feeling like my back was against the wall," Binnington said.
"I think I've been pretty resilient ever since."
Jordan Binnington put himself in rare company with his ninth consecutive victory Tuesday. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NHLStats?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NHLStats</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TORvsSTL?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TORvsSTL</a> <a href="https://t.co/yyE5DrEjXo">pic.twitter.com/yyE5DrEjXo</a>—@PR_NHL
Before clearing waivers and refusing a demotion to the ECHL ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, Binnington determined he needed to work harder and change his lifestyle if he wanted to realize his NHL dream.
"In [previous] summers, I could have put more work in. I could have stayed [home] a little more, for sure," recalled the native of Richmond Hill, Ont. "Toronto is a fun city but when you find yourself in a position where you're not where you want to be [in your career] and you're not making your family as proud as you can, it really hits you. [The extra-curricular stuff] isn't worth it.
"But it wasn't a snap-of-the-finger fix. I had a good mentor in [goalie development coach and ex-NHLer] Andy Chiodo. He kept me honest, and working with [strength and conditioning coach] Matt Nichol [in Toronto] was good. He showed me a way to believe in myself and use my talent again. I like where my head's at right now."
Binnington, who was loaned to the Boston Bruins' AHL affiliate in Providence, Mass., last season and represented the team at the all-star game, entered Blues' training camp five months ago as their No. 4 goalie behind Jake Allen, Chad Johnson and Husso. He was later sent to St. Louis' new AHL club in San Antonio, Tex., to start the season.
But Binnington soon wrested away the starting role from Husso and was recalled by the Blues on Dec. 9 after Johnson exited on waivers and Husso got hurt. He replaced Allen in a couple of losses before blanking the hometown Philadelphia Flyers on 25 shots for his first NHL win in his first start on Jan. 7.
"I think it's important to try to make an impact right away and get the belief in the mind of your teammates and coaches that you can handle [the NHL]. It was a nice night and my dad [John] was there," said Binnington.
On Tuesday, his bid for a third consecutive shutout and fifth of the season was spoiled by the Maple Leafs' Zach Hyman in the third period, ending Binnington's shutout streak at 173 minutes 50 seconds.
I'm happy for him and proud of him because he really stuck with it through times when other guys would have gone the other way.— Wolves goalie coach Stan Dubicki on Blues netminder Jordan Binnington
"Everything's better when you're winning, so it's nice timing for me to come here and have success," said Binnington, who's making a compelling case for Calder Trophy honours as NHL rookie of the year with a 13-1-1 record in 17 games with a 1.60 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. His GAA and save percentage rank first in the NHL among goalies with a minimum 15 appearances.
Other season highlights for the Blues' 2011 third-round draft pick:
- He's the seventh goalie in NHL history to post four shutouts in his first 14 starts.
- Binnington is the 35th goalie in league history and second Blues netminder (Rich Parent, 1999) to record a shutout in his first NHL start.
- He's the 31st NHL goaltender and third in Blues history (Jake Allen, Brent Johnson) to record at least eight wins in his first 10 career starts.
- Binnington was named the NHL's second star of the week on Jan. 14 and its first star on Feb. 11.
"I'm happy for him and proud of him because he really stuck with it through times when other guys would have gone the other way," Wolves goalie coach Stan Dubicki, who worked with Binnington for three seasons, said in an interview.
He remembered a younger Binnington possessing "so much natural ability" and a quiet confidence in Chicago.
"He reads the game so well," added Dubicki, who has exchanged text messages with Binnington after many of his games with the Blues. "He sees the play developing and it's like he's one step ahead.
"He's aggressive when he needs to be and calm when he needs to be. Staying in control, composed and confident, that's the big thing for him."
So far, so good.