How about that Jordan Binnington fellow? Seriously, if he played the entire season with the St. Louis Blues, he’d surely be a frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy right now.
Many forgot about Binnington after a dismal World Junior Championship performance with Canada in 2013, with St. Louis’ third-round pick in 2011 (88th overall) spending the past five years in the AHL. Binnington started this season with the San Antonio Rampage, but when it became clear in late December that Jake Allen couldn’t handle the load as the starting goaltender and Chad Johnson was far from effective, Binnington took over the top spot and never looked back.
Binnington was the hottest goaltender in the NHL after Jan. 1, recording a 24-5-1 record, 1.83 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and five shutouts, and the Blues went from a laughingstock to battling for the Central Division title on the final day of the regular season in the process. St. Louis’ top line did a great job, but you’re kidding yourself if you think Binnington hasn’t been the team’s most valuable player.
The regular season was one thing, though. The playoffs are a different animal. And a rookie netminder winning a playoff series? That’s a tough ask. With the extra attention and pressure of keeping a season alive, there’s a reason veteran goaltenders are typically the ones fighting for the Stanley Cup.
But there are exceptions. Sometimes the mix of adrenaline and excitement can help unknown netminders rise to the occasion. And sometimes the world’s best sharpshooters can have difficulties solving a fresh face, which is a challenge Winnipeg is presented with in the first round: Binnington has never started a game against the Jets.
The moment the puck drops on Wednesday at Bell MTS Place, all eyes will be on Binnington. The question? Whether he’s the real deal or whether his regular season was just an instance of everything clicking at the right time. Binnington is due for a raise this summer – he’s playing out a one-year, $650,000 deal and set to become a restricted free agent on July 1 – and a long playoff run would put the brakes on any but-he’s-still-unproven talk ahead of negotiations.
If Binnington does go on a run, too, he won’t be the first relative unknown who takes center stage in the post-season. Let’s take a look at some of the best playoff runs by rookie netminders:
Ken Dryden, Montreal Canadiens (1971)
Dryden has the distinction of being the only goaltender to lead a team to the Stanley Cup before winning the Calder Trophy the very next season. With just six NHL games to his credit prior to the 1971 playoffs, it was a surprise to see him get the starting role over all-star netminder Rogie Vachon, but it quickly became apparent Dryden was the right man for the job. Drafted by Boston in 1964 (14th overall), Dryden helped the Canadiens get past the Bruins in a hard-fought seven-game series in the first round before shutting down the Minnesota North Stars in Montreal’s six-game second-round victory. The Cup final proved to be an important time in Montreal’s history: while it was Dryden’s first shot at a Cup, it marked the final playoff run of Jean Beliveau’s career. Dryden stole the spotlight, only allowing more than two goals twice in the seven-game series. Dryden took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and went on to win five more championships. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983, his first year eligible.
Patrick Roy, Montreal Canadiens (1986)
Roy won four Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame career and is considered one of the greatest goalies of all-time, and his iconic career began with one of the best playoff runs by any goalie regardless of NHL experience. Fresh off of a Calder Cup in the AHL the year prior, Roy played 47 regular season games with the Habs as a 20-year-old rookie, earning the starting gig for the post-season. Roy backstopped the Habs to a sweep of the Bruins in the first round and stood on his head in Game 7 of the second round as Montreal bested the Hartford Whalers. The Canadiens disposed of the New York Islanders in the third round before beating the Calgary Flames – led by rookie Mike Vernon in net – for the championship. When it was all said and done, Roy posted a 15-5 record in 20 contests with a .923 SP and a 1.93 GAA, the best numbers of any rookie goalie in playoff history. At 20, Roy became the youngest Conn Smythe Trophy winner and is the only goalie to win playoff MVP with two different teams, snagging the award with Colorado in 2001. (He also won it a second time with Montreal in 1993. His three Conn Smythe wins are the most in league history). With four Stanley Cup rings, three Vezina Trophies, various league records and his number retired by both NHL clubs he played for and with various league records, it’s safe to say Roy’s career turned out alright.
Ron Hextall, Philadelphia Flyers (1987)
Hextall was considered a long shot to make the Flyers out of training camp prior to the 1986-87 campaign, but not only did he play in 66 of Philadelphia’s games, he went on to have one of the greatest rookie playoff performances in league history. The always feisty Hextall was awarded the Conn Smythe after keeping the Flyers in contention against the dominant Oilers, a team loaded with Hall of Famers. Hextall won 15 games, recorded a .908 SP and 2.76 GAA to lead the Flyers within a game of the Stanley Cup. And while Philadelphia fell short, the run made it clear that Hextall was a capable full-time starter and one of the league’s top netminders. (Fun fact: Hextall’s 43 penalty minutes during the 1987 playoffs are the NHL record for a goaltender. He’s second  and third  on the list, too.)
Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes (2006)
With Carolina set to embark on its first playoff appearance since 2009, memories of the Hurricanes’ 2006 Cup run come to mind. Eric Staal, Justin Williams, Cory Stillman, Rod Brind’Amour and Erik Cole were the franchise’s top players at the time, and while goaltender Martin Gerber wasn’t spectacular, Carolina did enough to finish second in the Eastern Conference. But after Gerber dropped the first two games to the Canadiens in the opening round, Ward entered and he didn’t look back. He won his first seven playoff games and forced coach Peter Laviolette to stick with him for the remainder of the run. Ward tied Roy and Hextall for the rookie record for wins in the post-season, and like Roy and Hextall, Ward won the Conn Smythe after leading the Hurricanes to a Game 7 victory over the Oilers in the final. Ward has been a solid goalie in the NHL ever since and is just one of 10 NHL goaltenders to score a goal. Unfortunately, he’s made the playoffs just twice in his career and not once in the past decade.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (2016)
With a .666 championship winning percentage over the past three post-seasons, Murray has played in the Stanley Cup final more often than not during his short big-league career. With Marc-Andre Fleury out with a concussion, Jeff Zatkoff was a temporary starter to begin the playoffs in 2015-16, but as soon as Murray, who had been injured late in the regular season, was healthy enough to go in Game 3, the crease was turned over to the then-rookie keeper and he was up to the challenge. Murray won his first three games and didn’t lose in regulation until Game 4 of Pittsburgh’s second-round series against the Washington Capitals. When all was said and done, Murray finished the post-season with a 15-6 record, leading the Penguins to the team’s fourth Stanley Cup. Murray played just 13 games with the Penguins during the regular season, so he was technically still a rookie when he led Pittsburgh to a second straight championship the following season. Murray and the Penguins are set to do battle against the New York Islanders in Murray’s fourth playoff run, and if Murray rediscovers his 2016 form, a third Stanley Cup in four years isn’t out of question.