This should be an easy assignment. Compare two NHL goalies who are less than a year apart in age, but one is much bigger and also has an edge in athleticism, the use of his glove hand, rebound control and puckhandling. Case closed? Not so fast. The goalie with all the advantages is Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The other goalie in question is Jordan Binnington of the
St. Louis Blues. Despite Murray’s perceived superiority, the values of the two are very close. How can this be? Well, let’s see.
This comparison is strange. They were considered to be basically at the same level when they were drafted. Binnington was selected 88th overall in 2011 and Murray was taken 83rd in 2012. Both played two more years of junior after being drafted and were named OHL all-stars, but neither was looked upon as a definite No. 1 NHL goalie. Today, they are both considered good NHL goalies who quickly won Stanley Cups, but nobody is touting them at this point as future Hall of Famers. Their paths after leaving junior were quite different. Binnington had to start in the ECHL and then played four-plus seasons in the AHL before St. Louis brought him up. Murray went directly from junior to the AHL where he starred for a season-and-a-half before his recall to the NHL. Each was a starting goalie on Stanley Cup champion before he had played a full season in the NHL. Murray repeated as a Cup champion following his first full NHL campaign.
In today’s high-tempo NHL, athleticism is a significant requirement for any netminder. A goalie who is athletic has two features in his movements – they are quick and they are fluid. These characteristics describe Murray perfectly. He is very quick moving up and down from his crouch to his knees. When he’s on his knees, he can move fluidly in a lateral direction, all the while remaining square to the puck. His lateral mobility is not at the Andrei Vasilevskiy level, but Murray is in the top group of NHL goalies. Binnington has some quickness to his game, but he realizes his limitations. He does not attempt to move down from his crouch except in scramble situations. His lateral movement is far from fluid. It is often quite herky-jerky, and many times he does not have time to get square to the puck.
This is not close. The only way that an NHL goalie can survive by moving laterally on his knees is if he is tall and has an exceptional glove hand. This describes Murray. He is 6-foot-4, and the quickness of his glove hand is at the elite level. The advantage of making glove saves is that there are no rebounds. Binnington is 6-foot-1. His glove hand is average. He does not attempt to play on his knees and move laterally. Binnington is vulnerable on shots over his catching-hand shoulder. He usually tries to stop shots in this area by quick movements of his upper body. This results in more rebounds.
Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall once explained a goalie’s priorities to me: the first is to stop the puck and the second is to control the rebound. Success in the second priority meant that the goalie had made a save. Being square to the original shot often allows the goalie to “swallow the puck” by absorbing it into his paraphernalia (as Danny Gallivan would say). If the goalie is not square to the original shot, he is often still moving when the puck hits him. This makes rebound control more difficult. Recent performances by Murray and Binnington have confirmed my impression of their styles. Murray fluidly absorbs almost every original shot. There are very few rebounds. For Binnington, most shots are battles. He gets to almost every original shot by means of a quick movement of a body part while he is still in motion. This often leads to rebounds.
This is the most underappreciated aspect of a goalie’s game. Murray has good hockey sense. He is seldom caught out of position. His decisions when handling the puck usually are correct. Binnington displays elite-level hockey sense. His anticipation of where the puck is going is uncanny. He reacts very well to cross-ice passes. He seems to read an opponent’s mind as to when they’re going to try a wraparound or to jam the crease from the side. Binnington finds a way to pounce on loose pucks when he senses the need for a line change. He knows when the Blues need an emotional charge and sometimes starts a scuffle with an opponent in order to do so. His puckhandling is awkward, but he’s always in the correct position to make a pass or get the puck out of the defensive zone at key times.
When two players are basically of the same value but one has a much higher skill level, the other player has to possess an X-factor. Binnington does. His contribution to his team is much different than that of Murray. Pittsburgh needed a calm, consistent presence in goal after a number of disappointing playoff performances by Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray provided that. He is skilled and big, but at times appears sloppy and almost lethargic. Binnington put a charge into what was often a docile leadership group in St. Louis. His seemingly cocky, abrasive manner with opponents, officials and the media spurred on his team. Ryan O’Reilly was a deserving Conn Smythe Trophy winner, but I wouldn’t have voted for him. Binnington was the most important player in the Blues’ Cup victory. He gave up some bad goals, and he had a couple bad games, but he emerged from those situations with a snarl on his face and was the key factor in every game where St. Louis faced elimination. He played his best in the biggest games, and his presence raised the play of those around him. This is Binnington’s X-factor.
Here is the ultimate test: if I’m managing the Blues, there is no way I trade Binnington for Murray. If I’m managing the Penguins, I would at least consider trading Murray for Binnington, especially if my team was in the doldrums. One goalie has greater physical attributes. The other goalie has greater hockey sense and the X-factor. I am going with the latter package. In a photo finish, I take Jordan Binnington over Matt Murray.