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Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues

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The St. Louis Blues are the hottest team in hockey and in a little less than a month-and-a-half have gone from being one of the worst, most disappointing teams in the league, to what now looks to be a sure-fire playoff team with less than a quarter of the season to go.

It is not hard to see what the turning point has been for them, and it happened on Jan. 7 when they gave Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old goalie that had appeared in just three NHL games in his career to that point, all of them in mop-up duty, his very first start.

He stopped all 25 shots he faced that night in a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, and he has simply not stopped winning since.

The early numbers so far are more than impressive

  • In his 20 appearances this season he has recorded a 15-2-1 record for the Blues.
  • He has a .936 save percentage that is tops among goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games. Tampa Bay’s Andre Vasilevskiy is second at .930.
  • Along with that, he has a .948 save percentage at even-strength, that is also far and away the best mark in the league. New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss is second at .938.

When the Blues lost Carter Hutton in free agency this past summer to the Buffalo Sabres, it left their net in the hands of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson to start the season. That experience did not go well for either one of them individually, or for the Blues as a team. Through Jan 6, one day before Binnington’s first career start, the two Blues’ goalies had combined for an .891 save percentage, a performance that was, at the time, the third-worst in the league ahead of only the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers.

The Blues had their share of problems early in the season, but none of them were bigger than the black hole that was their goaltending situation. Neither Allen or Johnson were able to do anything to secure the position, and their performance was helping to sabotage a team that probably should have been at least a little bit better than their overall record showed.

Then Binnington showed up and everything for the Blues has been different ever since.

After being selected in the third-round of the 2011 draft by the Blues, Binnington spent the first seven years of his pro career in the American Hockey League and really started to see his performance improve over the past three. Still, he never really got his chance until this season and so far it has been a somewhat historic run that is kind of reminiscent of the improbable starts that Patrick Lalime and Andrew Hammond had to their careers when they came out of nowhere to lift their teams in their debut seasons.

Going as far back as the 1987 season, Binnington is one of just seven goalies to win at least 15 of their first 21 appearances in the NHL, joining a list that includes Brent Johnson, Hammond, Matt Murray, Semyon Varlamov, Lalime, and Frederik Andersen.

At some point Binnington’s individual performance is going to regress. It did for all of the goalies just mentioned, and there is no way he is going to maintain a .936 overall save percentage and a .948 even-strength save percentage. Lets be realistic here, it is a hot start to a career that could still go in any direction. Nobody, not even the Blues and Binnington himself, knows what that direction will ultimately be because projecting goalie performance is an almost impossible task, even for the people that are paid big money to have to figure it out. But this hot streak is still happening, and it came at just the right time for a Blues team that spent its offseason spending big money in an effort to get back into the playoffs and was dangerously close to having it all go to waste because nobody could stop the puck for them.

They found somebody to do that, and the season is headed right where they hoped it would be when it began.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Kucherov, DeBrincat each hit fivers; Thornton turns back the clock

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Three stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

I mean, what is there to say about Kucherov that hasn’t already been said?

Kucherov was in fine form again on Monday, scoring twice and adding three assists in a five-point effort that left him one-point shy of 100 on the season. He’s played 60 games now.

The point totals are insane. He seems to be a lock for the Art Ross, and likely the Hart, too. The only real question is what that final total will be in 22 games’ time? With assists like these…

2. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

DeBrincat match Kucherov’s five-point total with a hat trick and two assists in a wild 8-7 win for the Blackhawks against the Ottawa Senators.

In just his second year in the NHL, DeBrincat has 32 goals and 60 points in 60 games this season, surpassing his 28-goal, 52-point totals from his rookie season a year ago.

He has six goals and 12 points in his past six games now.

The Blackhawks are now just one point back of a playoff spot.

3. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

Semyon Varlamov had a shutout, but 39-year-old Thornton grabbed his first hat trick since 2010 so he gets here by default.

It was Oct. 27, 2010, against the New Jersey Devils, precisely, when Thornton last bludged the twine three times. There was no beard then, no gray hairs either. Just Jumbo Joe, only eight years younger.

Thornton turned back the clock in Monday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Bruins. It won’t be as sweet, especially after how the Sharks ended up losing, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Highlights of the night

Hands of Kucherov:

McAvoy’s winner:

Factoids

Scores

Flames 5, Coyotes 2
Lightning 5, Blue Jackets 1
Blackhawks 8, Senators 7
Avalanche 3, Golden Knights 0
Bruins 6, Sharks 5 (OT)
Capitals 3, Kings 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blues win ninth in a row as Avalanche keep fading

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At the start of December the Colorado Avalanche were off to one of the best starts in the NHL with a 15-6-5 record and looking like a sure-fire playoff team thanks to one of the best lines in the league.

They had their flaws, yes, but they had enough top-end talent playing at an incredibly high level and seemed to have given themselves plenty of cushion to allow for any sort of regression that might follow in the coming months.

On Dec. 1, they were 14 points ahead of what looked to be a bitterly disappointing St. Louis Blues team in the Western Conference standings. That Blues team, meanwhile, looked like its season was already over before it really even had a chance to start, was going through a change behind the bench, and rumors were swirling that major changes to the roster could be coming if things did not turn around.

Two-and-a-half months later, everything has changed for both teams and we saw it all playing out on Saturday afternoon when the two teams met in Denver.

It was there that Blues won their ninth game in a row with a 3-0 victory that improved their lead over the Avalanche in the standings to eight points. That means the two teams have experienced a 22-point swing in less than three months.

That is an absolutely shocking flip in that amount of time.

The big change for the Blues has been the fact that their goaltending has completely turned around with the arrival of Jordan Binnington who is now 11-1-1 with a .931 save percentage in his first 13 starts. On Saturday, Jake Allen — who had been a mess earlier this season — recorded his second shutout of the season to give the Blues back-to-back shutouts.

They’re also getting the type of performance they expected out of Vladimir Tarasenko.

After what was one of the worst starts of his career, Tarasenko extended his current point streak to 11 games on Saturday with his fourth consecutive multi-point game.

Since Jan. 1 he has 26 points (including 14 goals) in 19 games.

As for the Avalanche, well, their problems are plentiful.

They still don’t have enough scoring depth beyond their top players, and now they can’t keep anything out of their own net. The defense isn’t anything special, but the goaltending has been a massive disappointment. Put those two things together and they have now given up at least four goals in eight of their past 10 games, while neither goalie (Semyon Varlamov or big offseason acquisition Philipp Grubauer) has done anything to solidify the position.

They have lost nine out of their past 10 games and 24 out of their past 32 since Dec. 1.

As if that is not bad enough, their upcoming schedule is brutal with games against Vegas, Winnipeg, a white-hot Chicago team, and Nashville over their next four.

In short, this could continue to get worse for the Avalanche before it gets better.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Five teams that should call about Jimmy Howard

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For the third year in a row the Detroit Red Wings are going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs and that means with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching they should be looking to sell off all of their pending unrestricted free agents to the highest bidder.

As well as any other veterans they can get a decent haul for, especially if it cleans up what is still a very messy salary cap situation.

They have no shortage of potential players to sell this season with Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, and starting goalie Jimmy Howard all playing on expiring contracts.

The intriguing name here is Howard because he could, in theory, be the biggest game-changer for a contender out of this entire group.

Despite playing behind what has been one of the league’s worst teams this season, he has consistently performed at a pretty high level among the league’s goalies. Out of the 22 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games this season his overall .916 save percentage is the sixth-best mark in the NHL, while his .930 mark at even-strength is the second best behind only Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen.

That is good. That is really good.

The Detroit Free Press reported on Monday that because the Red Wings don’t have a young goalie ready anywhere in the system they might have an interest in attempting to re-sign Howard, or trading him and then attempting to re-sign him in the offseason as a free agent. The latter sounds like a decent strategy but rarely, if ever, works out that way. There’s also this unpleasant reality: Howard is turning 35 in a few weeks, is probably nearing the end of his career, and the Red Wings on their current trajectory as a rebuilding team probably will not be in a position to contend with him on his next contract.

A trade and turning the page over to a new chapter in net is probably the most sensible strategy, even if it means going outside the organization. It is not like the duo of Howard and Jonathan Bernier for another season is going to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs a year from now.

There are a handful of teams around the NHL that should be interested in trying to complete such a move.

Let’s look at them.

1. San Jose Sharks

This is the obvious no-brainer team.

The Sharks are as complete as any team in the NHL at forward and defense but still have a black hole that risks sabotaging their entire season in net. The duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has produced the second-worst save percentage in the NHL this season and going into the playoffs with that is a huge risk.

Joe Thornton doesn’t have much hockey left in the NHL. Erik Karlsson can be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The window is wide open right now for this team to try and win it all, something they could absolutely do as long as their goaltending doesn’t ruin them.

“Hoping” that Jones returns to his normal form shouldn’t be the strategy this season.

There is no long-term commitment with Howard beyond this season and gives them a chance to strike when everything is right there in front of them.

[Related: PHT Power Rankings: Sharks are one player away]

2. Calgary Flames

Like the Sharks the Flames are a team that has the look of a potential champion … as long as the goaltending holds up.

The Mike Smith experience has not gone well this season and has resulted in David Rittich, a 26-year-old with just a little more than 50 NHL games on his resume, starting to get the bulk of the playing time. To be fair, Rittich has played well and been a huge factor in the Flames’ rise to the top of the Western Conference standings. But given how small of a sample size we are dealing with here are the Flames 100 percent confident going into the postseason with him as “the guy?”

If nothing else Howard would be a good insurance plan in case Rittich falters, because I don’t know how much I would trust Smith to save the day if that happens given the way he has played this season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes

This is a real long shot and it would go against everything the Hurricanes have done in recent years where they have always kept the big picture in mind when constructing their roster.

Howard, as a pending free agent, probably doesn’t fit in the big picture outlook so it’s probably not going to happen.

But it never hurts to check it out. Or suggest it.

This is a team with a new owner that wants to win right now, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, and a team that has crawled back into contention and is right there in the Eastern Conference race. They are in it. They are very much in it and can get even closer with a win against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. They have a lot of good pieces that could get them closer this season, especially after adding Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. The one thing they are lacking is still consistency in net. Curtis McElhinney has been really good this season when he has played, and that has definitely helped. Howard, especially with the way he has played this season, would only help even more. Given how good the Hurricanes are at keeping pucks away from their goalies (fewest shots allowed per game in the NHL this season, once again one of the league’s best teams in that area) a goalie like Howard could be a significant addition if they decided to go in that direction.

I still don’t think they will, but it is an intriguing thought.

[Related: Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge]

4. Columbus Blue Jackets

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets already have one free-agent-to-be goalie on their roster, and there remains the possibility that they move him before the trade deadline. The Athletic‘s Aaron Portzline pointed out earlier this week that if they do it would most likely require another move to fill that vacant spot in net and Howard was a name that he mentioned as a possibility to keep in mind.

It does not do anything to solve the goaltending problem after this season, but the Blue Jackets are still a potential playoff team this season and there is one very important thing to keep in mind — Howard has been significantly better than Sergei Bobrovsky this season.

It would require a lot of moving parts, it would not fix anything after this season, but it might actually help them this season.

5. Colorado Avalanche

There are a lot of reasons the Colorado Avalanche have faded from their fast start.

They have zero depth after their top-three at forward. Their defense is not great. They are also getting lousy goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer. The first two problems are going to take some time to fix, and there is not one trade that can remedy that this season.

There is one trade that can help fix it the latter problem, especially with additional draft picks to trade this season. Normally I wouldn’t want to see a team with Colorado’s record go all in as being a buyer, but because of the West playoff field being what it is they are still very much in it. With decent goaltending and the three forwards they have at the top of the lineup they could be a headache for somebody in the first round if everything clicks at the same time. A goalie like Howard might help them get there.

Related: What is eating the Colorado Avalanche?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Colorado Collapse: What’s eating the Avalanche?

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Typically, the U.S. Thanksgiving break serves as a solid benchmark in the NHL for which teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For this year’s Colorado Avalanche, a peek at the standings on the final day of November would prove that Colorado was tied with Nashville in points atop the Central Division. But since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 7-15-3 (17 points), which is the worst mark in the league. Here in early February, they’re on the outside looking in, two points back of Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card race, after the Canucks defeated them 5-1 on Saturday.

Here’s a deeper look at how the Avalanche problems have (ahem) snowballed:

Top Heavy

Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up arguably the best line in the game. Entering Colorado’s matchup with Vancouver over the weekend, the trio had combined for 199 points (79 goals, 120 assists) after all three had been named All-Stars. But head coach Jared Bednar split them up for the Canucks game, looking to spread a bit of the wealth. Alexander Kerfoot started on the top line in Landeskog’s spot along with MacKinnon and Colin Wilson, while the Avalanche captain played left wing on the second line with Carl Soderberg at center and Rantanen on right wing. It lasted less than 20 minutes, as Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen were reunited by the end of the first period after Colorado had fallen behind 2-0.

Since the start of December, Landeskog (26 points), MacKinnon (30) and Rantanen (31) have combined for 87 points. During that span, all other Colorado forwards have combined for 69 points. Outside of the big three and Soderberg – who has a career-best 17 goals this season – the Avs have struggled to produce up front. That lack of depth will make it difficult for them to turn things around and make a playoff push.

Power Play

Through Nov. 30, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with the man advantage clicking at a whopping 31.4 percent, or 27-for-86 in 26 games. In the following 25 games since Dec. 1, Colorado has 20 power play goals, despite 18 more power play opportunities (20-for-104). While it is unreasonable to expect that the Avs would have continued their torrid pace from earlier in the year, the dip in production on the man advantage helps explain why Colorado’s overall goals per game has slid from 3.73 through November (tied for best in the league with Tampa Bay) to 2.92 since.

Goalie Struggles

Colorado has allowed three or more goals 33 times in 51 games, so defensive structure has certainly been an issue this season. Still, the Avalanche has also failed to get big saves from either of their goaltenders. Since early December, Semyon Varlamov is 4-8-2 with an .875 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average. That save percentage is the worst among all netminders who have played at least 10 games in that span.

Philipp Grubauer – who was signed during the off-season to a three-year, $10 million deal – hasn’t been any better with a 3-5-1 record, an .878 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average during that same stretch.

After regulation

Get this, the Avs are 1-7 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts. Those are precious points they’ve left on the table in a conference with playoff spots ripe for the taking.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, also owns the Los Angeles Rams. On the bright side, if the Avs get just three points, they’d be back in the playoffs.