Jordan Binnington wasn’t really in the St. Louis Blues’ plans this season. With Carter Hutton inking a deal with the Buffalo Sabres and departing as a free agent, Chad Johnson was brought aboard to plug the hole behind Jake Allen. And on a pre-season depth chart, Binnington would have come in somewhere behind Ville Husso. In the big picture, Binnington was supposed to settle nicely into the role of AHL second-stringer and fourth option for the big club.
How laughable that all seems now.
Fresh off of NHL first star of the week honors, Binnington has quickly become one of the stories of the season — and not just for the Blues. The 25-year-old, who hadn’t seen NHL action since a one-off appearance back in 2015-16, has ripped the reins in the St. Louis crease out of Allen’s admittedly loose grasp and run with his opportunity as the No. 1 netminder. On Tuesday night, Binnington stopped 20 of the 23 shots he faced against the New Jersey Devils, running his personal winning streak to seven games as the Blues stretched their run to seven. And suddenly, with the way Binnington is playing, Carter Hart isn’t the only freshman keeper who deserves some serious attention.
True as it may be there there’s a considerable age gap between Hart, 20, and Binnington, there’s been a chasm between the widespread praise the two have received despite the Blues rookie putting up better numbers in his first full turn in an NHL crease. While Hart has managed an impressive .924 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average, Binnington has bettered those marks with a .927 SP and 1.82 GAA of his own. That’s not to mention Binnington’s pair of shutouts, including a 32-save blanking of the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning.
When measured not just against his peers but the league’s entire crease cohort, Binnington shines, too. Among goaltenders who have appeared in at least 14 games, as Binnington has, the Blues netminder ranks sixth in SP, first in GAA and his 10 wins are as many or more than the likes of Cam Talbot, Anton Khudobin, Philipp Grubauer, Jonathan Bernier and Corey Crawford have posted in 20-plus games. Binnington shines beyond those base statistics, as well. His .955 SP at 5-on-5 is the top mark among the 58 keepers with at least 600 minutes played, while his goals-saved above average of 10.0 is better than all but six netminders from that same group.
There is, of course, truth to the fact that Binnington has benefitted from a brilliant defense. He’s faced the fewest shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of those same 58 goaltenders, including the fewest high-danger shots. But that doesn’t change that Binnington has gotten the job done and the St. Louis stopper deserves a brighter spotlight for the work he’s done.
Binnington isn’t the only rookie who’s flown somewhat under the radar this season, though. Here are four others who have been overshadowed by the top tier from the freshman class, which includes Calder Trophy frontrunner Elias Pettersson, surefire candidates Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen and several first-year players such as Brady Tkachuk and Andrei Svechnikov who entered this season with considerable hype:
Andreas Johnsson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Yes, yes. We know. Under the radar and the Maple Leafs? That doesn’t compute. But there’s only so much praise to go around, and much of the worship when it comes to Toronto is heaped upon Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen these days, which has allowed Johnsson to be a bit of an unsung hero on a league-wide scale. While there’s no catching Pettersson, Johnsson, a seventh-round, 202nd-overall pick in 2013, has snuck into the rookie scoring race and is now only one off of Dahlin’s 31-point second-place total.
For those thinking this is a case of the rich getting richer, though, consider that the 24-year-old is going to be due a new contract at season’s end. If anything, Johnsson production hurts the Maple Leafs more than it helps if you’re taking the future into consideration. There’s only so much money to go around.
(Oh, and before anyone goes suggesting Johnsson inclusion is Toronto media bias, note that yours truly is from Winnipeg.)
Dominik Kahun, Chicago Blackhawks
Not exactly plucked off the scrap heap, but Kahun certainly wasn’t on the NHL radar in any big way before the 2018 Olympics. It was at that tournament that Kahun stood out, though. The former Sudbury Wolves forward, who was passed over entirely in the NHL draft, put up two goals and five points as Germany very nearly shocked the hockey world with gold in Pyeongchang. Kahun’s performance for the silver-medal winning squad boosted his stock, and the Blackhawks snapped him up as an undrafted free agent.
The 23-year-old’s start wasn’t what most had hoped, however, and he managed only four goals and 15 points through his first 40 games of the campaign. In recent weeks, though, Kahun has hit his stride. Over his past 16 games, he’s fired home seven goals and 14 points to propel himself into fourth in rookie scoring. For a team in need of cheap depth scoring, Kahun has been the perfect fit in his first NHL campaign.
Mathieu Joseph, Tampa Bay Lightning
Joseph’s arrival in the NHL wasn’t expected for another couple of seasons, at least. While he had potential and flashed his skills in his first professional campaign with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch — he scored 15 goals and 53 points in 70 games last season — it was believed that there was more seasoning necessary for Joseph to translate his game to the bigs.
Turns out that wasn’t the case at all, as Joseph, 22, has been the perfect fourth-line fit for the Lightning. Not only has he played with a physical edge and peskiness that makes him stand out, he’s contributed on the scoresheet. His 13 goals are the sixth-most of all Tampa Bay skaters and enough to put him all alone in fourth place among rookies this season. He’s rounded out his offense with seven helpers, too, making him one of a dozen Lightning players with at least 20 points this season and he’s 11th in rookie scoring.
Joseph’s teammate Anthony Cirelli could also find his way onto this list, but we’ll give Joseph the edge based on points per game and the expectation that Cirelli was supposed to make the jump to the NHL either this season or next.
Maxim Lajoie, Ottawa Senators
Tkachuk is the breakout star, Colin White is the rookie who has rounded into form, Thomas Chabot is the great hope and Lajoie is the freshman who has come out of just about nowhere to make his mark this season. Entering this season, Lajoie, 21, wasn’t even considered to be among the cream of the crop when it came to Ottawa’s prospects. But the 2016 fifth-round pick, selected 133rd overall, snuck into the opening night roster and made himself a fixture in the early going. He really turned heads when he scored four goals in his first six games.
Both offensively — he’s scored one goal and eight points in his past 45 games — and defensively, Lajoie has started to slow somewhat and even wound up a healthy scratch here and there. It’s clear he still possesses some serious potential, though, and he’s one more reason for Senators fans to be excited about the future.
Conor Garland, Arizona Coyotes
Injuries have necessitated some earlier-than-expected call-ups to the big club for the Coyotes, and among those who have gotten the chance to show what they can do with the big club is Garland. The 22-year-old put up massive numbers in the QMJHL — 74 goals and 257 points in 129 games over his final two seasons — and though he struggled to find the same kind of touch in the AHL, he’s managed to catch fire in Arizona. In 29 games, Garland has found twine 11 times and notched 14 points.
While that may not seem like an awfully large point total, in the context of the Coyotes’ season, it’s rather impressive. He’s only three points shy of cracking into the top 10 in points in Arizona, and Garland’s aforementioned 11 tallies are only one off the team lead.
He’s still a work in progress, but Garland might be a useful triggerman for the Coyotes for the remainder of the campaign.