Goaltending has always been a fickle position in hockey, but these days that notion has been pushed into overdrive. Big names are struggling, new guys are flourishing and the market seems to be indicating that a long-term, big-money contract is the worst idea for an NHL team right now.
Which brings us to the news that netminder Jordan Binnington has signed a new six-year, $36 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. The 27-year-old late-bloomer did indeed help the Blues to the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019, doing so as a rookie. Since then, his numbers have declined, however.
As a rookie, Binnington posted up a splendid .927 save percentage and 1.89 goals-against average for St. Louis, leading into that championship run. Last season, he was down to a .912 save percentage and 2.56 GAA and this year his save percentage is just .908, with a 2.69 GAA. In last year's bubble, Binnington was thrashed by a young Vancouver team that upset St. Louis in six games.
It all begs the question: have shooters simply figured Binnington out? There wasn't much of a book on him heading into that vaunted playoff run, where he was a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidate (ultimately Blues center Ryan O'Reilly was the winner), but NHL goal-scorers are like velociraptors when it comes to goalie weaknesses.
Clearly, the Blues have faith in their backstop, however. GM Doug Armstrong described the new deal as "comfortable" for the organization and used Jacob Markstrom and Connor Hellebuyck's most-recent contracts as comparables.
Markstrom is the better comparable; a netminder who only came into his own recently and earned a big payday - in his case, with the Calgary Flames. Markstrom is a few years older than Binnington, though goalies tend to age better than skaters, in many cases. Hellebuyck might have been a reach: He is a Vezina Trophy winner after all, and while his numbers aren't eye-popping this year, his Winnipeg Jets are also pretty weak on the defensive side of the puck. Binnington's Blues, on the other hand, are a solid defensive squad.
Having said that, I don't hate the Binnington contract. He'll only be 34 when it runs out and I don't think he's going to completely fall off a cliff in the next few seasons. If anything, he's going to be a good-not-great goaltender on a team that can cover up deficiencies thanks to its depth up front and on defense.
And I do not envy today's GMs in the NHL. Why pay Carey Price or Sergei Bobrovsky $10 million when you can get better results from Kevin Lankinen, Kaapo Kahkonen or Linus Ullmark? Well, because it's hard to figure out who the next Lankinen - or Binnington - is going to be (Florida actually did both; they have the wallet-smashing Bobrovsky and then a bargain in Chris Driedger).
It feels like the right path in this current market is to treat goalies like NFL running backs - hang on to the very best (Andrei Vasilevskiy, Hellebuyck) and don't get caught up by the rest. Yes, you can sign a veteran free agent to a big deal, but should you? Should you even hang on to the veteran you have? That's the debate the Maple Leafs must have right now with Frederik Andersen, who is approaching unrestricted free agency this summer but has never won a playoff round in Toronto and is often the second-best goalie in whatever game he's starting. Would the Leafs be better letting Andersen walk, bringing in a cheaper veteran to play alongside Jack Campbell?
The Blues are still very much in their Cup window and though their road back to the title series will be arduous, they could do it this year or next. So having the security of a guy who has done it before in Binnington is understandable. And St. Louis doesn't have anyone waiting in the wings just yet, as Vancouver did with Thatcher Demko when Markstrom walked via free agency. The next generation of Blues goalies includes Joel Hofer and Colten Ellis, though both are still a couple years away from NHL viability.
GM Armstrong is going to have some tough decisions to make with his roster this summer due to the flat cap, but between Binnington and backup Ville Husso, his goaltending hit is less than $7 million for 2021-22. In this era of uncertainty, that's not bad.