The Blues Need A Better Binnington
1:05 PM EDT on November 1, 2022
Won't someone spare a thought for the poor recent Stanley Cup champions who have slowly but surely lost the ability to win? I know that the rise to the top is the greatest joy a fan can experience, but the slow spiral back down is no fun, and as we speak the St. Louis Blues are looking for a way to escape it.
One of the more magical Cup runs in recent history lifted the Blues to glory in 2019, as a team at the bottom of the league in January went 30–10–5 down the stretch and eventually fought their way past the Bruins in Game 7 of the Finals. Their turnaround was owed in large part to Jordan Binnington, a rookie goaltender who became nearly unbeatable after being called up, even in the highest of high-pressure situations. In that Game 7, Binnington stopped 32 of 33 Boston shots, and he didn't give up his goal until there were two minutes remaining and his elated team had already scored four of their own.
The comedown hasn't hit the Blues quite as hard as it could have, especially given that their title run came from a season that was 50 percent ugly. But they haven't made all that much of a mark on the league in the years since. They were the top team in the West in the abbreviated 2019–20 campaign, but failed to win any games in the seeding round robin and fell out of the bracket at the hands of the Canucks in the first round. The following year, they were swept by the Presidents' Trophy–winning Avalanche. And in 2022, after a third-place finish in the Central, it was again the Avs who took them out in the second round.
Binnington, through it all, has shown flashes of greatness but has mostly struggled to reverse what's been a steady decline since his rookie magic. His regular-season save percentage dipped from .927 to .912 as a sophomore, and then slightly further down in his third year. In 2021–22, he lost his status as his team's first option, ceding the role to the second-year back-up from Finland, Ville Husso, who played very well throughout the regular season and then parlayed that success into a new contract with the Red Wings. (Binnington is on just the second year of a six-year deal worth $6 million per, which severely limited the kind of offer St. Louis could make.) That meant this year, after some strong performances in the playoffs that were cut short by injury, Binnington would have to be The Guy again, with only the 36-year-old Thomas Greiss around to share the net with him.
It started well enough, with the Blues winning their first three games behind Binnington in net, but that early optimism has crumbled over the last five—all regulation losses by a combined margin of 17 goals—and the former postseason hero looks deeply shaken. At home against Montreal on Saturday night, one of the league's weaker offenses eviscerated an early 3-1 Blues lead, peppering Binnington with five goals in about 10 minutes of game time as they cruised to a 7-4 victory. “We scored four goals,” Blues coach Craig Berube said afterward. “We should win the game."
They didn't score four on Monday night, but it wouldn't have mattered even if they did. In Binnington's follow-up performance, he didn't even make it to the second half of the game. A Kings team that's been good at finishing their chances (and which has played a particularly loose, action-packed brand of hockey) just tore the Blues' defense apart, piling up five goals on a mostly helpless Binnington until he was mercifully yanked in the second period. Certain interested observers took a kind of glee in noticing how Binnington gave a little "Watch it, punks" to the Kings' bench during his skate of shame. It's nothing to bat an eye at on its own, but for a goalie who's truly earned his reputation for bratty troublemaking, the frustration is certainly something to monitor.
Binnington could stand to be a little more solid in net, but also could more often be spared the indignity of sliding around his crease while the opposing offense moves the puck through an incorporeal defense. And all this trouble comes without even mentioning St. Louis's sickly forward group, which was deep last season but is 30th in the league in goals per game as their young kids have started slow and their vets from the Cup team have struggled to keep up their production.
“You gotta realize how tough it is to win in this league,” said sixth-year Blue Brayden Schenn after Monday's game. “And I don’t think we realize that right now.”
The problem is nowhere near dire enough to start panicking. The Blues should know that better than anyone, given what they suffered through during their franchise's only championship season. But the outlook isn't good either. Last year, this was a team that created a below-average number of chances, benefited from puck luck, and leaned on its goaltending in its biggest moments. This year's team is similar, minus the luck and the goalie. Binnington and the defense need to fix their issues and be the bedrock this team desperately needs. Then they can taunt people without looking pathetic.