Jake Allen

Binnington Blues Stanley Cup
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Binnington, Blues show how far you can come in one year

The year 2020 remains brand-spanking new, even if world events made the first week feel much longer. With the year’s new-car smell still wafting in the air, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how much can change in 12 months. St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington can attest to how someone’s life can pull a 180 in 365 days (or, in 2020, 366).

While Binnington made his first NHL start on Jan. 7, 2019, Binnington told The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford (sub required) that it also felt, to him, like one of his last opportunities to prove himself.

It sounds like Binnington arrived with the sort of motivation that would inspire you to punch large slabs of meat and run laps on the beach.

(Aside: Binnington probably means “Eye of the Tiger,” yet that unintentionally open-ended comment actually points to the glut of outstanding inspirational, montage-worthy tunes in “Rocky” movies. There’s the just-as-rad theme, cheesier option “Hearts on Fire,” and even the remote possibility that Binnington was merely listening to Rocky mutter various lines. Lots of possibilities, honestly.)

Binnington starts hot, rarely slows down for Blues

Binnington began his underdog story with quite the haymaker. He pitched a 25-save shutout in that first NHL start after only seeing paltry relief appearances before.

Rather than being a fluke victory, that debut shutout portended big things for Binnington and the Blues. The team caught fire, and while Binnington wasn’t the only key, he saved their season.

Binnington managed an astounding 24 wins in just 30 games played, generating a fantastic .927 save percentage during a rookie season that helped him finish second in the Calder voting. Binnington could’ve hung his hat on that great regular season, alone.

Yet, well … you probably know what happened.

While Binnington struggled at times during the postseason (.914 save percentage during that 26-game run), he frequently earned praise for being “unflappable.” You’d expect “steady as a rock” from a veteran, not a goalie who wondered where his career was heading as 2019 began.

Binnington delivered in the clutch, in particular, cementing that thought with a stellar championship-winning performance in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Binnington, Blues putting out a strong sequel so far

Marking Jan. 2, 2019 as a line in the sand makes a lot of sense for Blues historians — and maybe other teams firing their coaches mid-season. After all, that’s when the Blues ranked last in the NHL, only to turn around their 2018-19 season and win the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup.

That Binnington start on Jan. 7, 2019 works well, too, though.

Either way, it’s truly remarkable to see how much Binnington’s life changed, and how he skyrocketed up the ranks of top goalies. Consider a few facts:

  • Binnington’s 43 wins (43-12-5 record) leads all goalies since he made that first start. His .923 save percentage would hover around the top 10 during that time, too, if you exclude goalies who barely played.
  • Fascinatingly, a resurgent Jake Allen now ties Binnington’s .923 during that time (Allen in 28 games, Binnington in 60). The two can conceivably push each other to help boost the Blues overall.
  • The Blues topped all NHL teams for the calendar year of 2019 with 56 wins and 123 standings points. (Again, Binnington won 43 of those 56.)
  • Binnington went from a goalie bouncing around various levels of hockey to a player who received a two-year, $8.8 million contract. And you could make a sound argument the Blues got a bit of a bargain.
  • Yes, Binnington tapered off a bit compared to last season’s lofty hot streak. He still seems like a viable starter, however, with a solid .914 save percentage, and 7.26 Goals Saved Against Average that is more than respectable.
  • Binnington played a large role in the resurgence of “Gloria.”

Binnington really stacked his resume so far, huh? Now the key is to avoid making sequels on the level of “Rocky V.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Blues, Avalanche continue to be class of West

Jake Allen of St. Louis Blues
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Three Stars

1) Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

Allen lost his starting job to Jordan Binnington last season, but the backup goaltender has become a critical position as load management continues to be a hot topic. Binnington took over the starting role in January and has never gone through the rigors of a full NHL season. Allen made 35 saves Wednesday as the Blues defeated the Oilers 2-1 and picked up their fourth straight victory.

2) Pavel Francouz, Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are the hottest team in the NHL and might have a goalie controversy on their hands. Francouz has been stellar between the pipes while Grubauer missed a few games with a lower-body injury. The Czech netminder made 31 saves as the Avalanche rebounded from their first regulation loss in 10 games earlier this week. With a 9-1-1 record in the past 11 games, the Avalanche appear to be ready to fight the Blues for the Central Division title.

3) Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils

With Taylor Hall gone, Palmieri has risen to the top of the Devils depth chart as their go-to scoring forward. He might be a prime chip at this year’s trade deadline with another year remaining at a manageable $4.65 million AAV. Cam Fowler refused to challenge Palmieri before the alternate captain wired a wrist shot to give the Devils a one-goal lead in their 3-1 victory over the Ducks.

Highlights of the Night

MacKinnon had two must-see moments on one goal in the second period against the Blackhawks. The way he collected the puck just outside the blueline, and then the wicked wrister that bounced off the cross-bar and in.

Brayden Schenn didn’t waste much time on this breakaway

Stat of the Night

Scores

New Jersey Devils 3, Anaheim Ducks 1
Colorado Avalanche 3, Chicago Blackhawks 1
St. Louis Blues 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

The Buzzer: Rough night for rougher teams

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Three Stars

1. Assorted Buffalo Sabres

Look, when you beat a team 7-1, you’re probably going to have at least a few standouts, and your top Sabres star probably boils down to taste.

Johan Larsson is a good player to start with. His three assists happened during Buffalo’s five-goal opening period, one that really made the Devils’ dire situation extra-glaringly-clear. Jack Eichel did what he does, which is score a lot, extending his point streak to 10 games with one goal and two assists.

To be fair to the Devils, they at least tried to make the score more respectable. They fired 45 shots on goal, including 39 during the second and third period, to try to get in the game. Linus Ullmark wasn’t interested in helping New Jersey save face, however, as he stopped all but one of those 45 SOG.

2. Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

Could we be seeing a mini-renaissance for a goalie who’s been left in the dust by Jordan Binnington?

Allen was arguably the first star of Monday night, making 38 saves for his first shutout of 2019-20, including 17 in the third period to cement that goose egg.

While it’s a small sample size, Allen has been heating up after two rocky appearances in October. Allen generated a strong .934 save percentage during five appearances in November, and began December with this shutout. Again, it’s not exactly a lengthy run of elite puck-stopping, yet if Allen can maintain a decent level of play, the Blues can at least keep Binnington reasonably rested as they try to defend that first-ever Stanley Cup title.

Semyon Varlamov is a decent option as another goalie as he made 30 out of 31 stops as the Islanders got back on the winning track against the very-much-not-winning Red Wings.

3. Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks

It’s unclear if Lindholm will find the game that made him an under-the-radar elite defensive presence from 2015-16 to 2017-18, only to drop off significantly in 2018-19. But he at least enjoyed a nice game on Monday.

Lindholm collected three assists against the Kings, ending a seven-game pointless streak. The last time he collected a point? Why, that was … another three-assist night, in that case against the Avalanche on Oct. 26. Lindholm now has 12 points (all assists) in 20 games in 2019-20.

Stephenson is Vegas-bound

The Washington Capitals traded Chandler Stephenson to the Vegas Golden Knights (and George McPhee) for a fifth-round pick in 2021.

Tough to say that Stephenson is a huge loss, judging by both his modest scoring numbers, workmanlike other stats, and his RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey. But he might at least give Vegas a decent option to soak up penalty kill minutes and other unglamorous roles.

Highlight of the Night

Kings forward Nikolai Prokhorkin sliced through the Ducks defense like a hot fork knife through butter.

Lowlight

Ouch, Louis Domingue.

Factoids

  • Jake Allen joins Brian Elliott (25) and Jaroslav Halak (20) as the only three Blues goalies with 20 career shutouts, according to NHL PR. Binnington is at six in his regular season career, in case you were wondering.
  • NHL PR points out that Jack Eichel (four assists on March 21, 2018) is the only Sabres player with more assists in a single period than the three Larsson collected in the opening frame on Monday.
  • The Devils have lost their last two games by a combined score of 11-1. The Sabres scored three goals before New Jersey even registered its first shot on goal in Monday’s 7-1 drubbing.
  • The Red Wings have now lost 10 games in a row, and have allowed the most goals in the league with 118. No one else has reached 100 goals allowed yet this season (Montreal’s second-worst with 95).
  • As rough as the Rangers’ underlying numbers have been, they were putting together some decent stretches. Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Golden Knights ended a five-game point streak where the Rangers went 4-0-1.

Scores

BUF 7 – NJD 1
VGK 4 – NYR 1
NYI 4 – DET 1
STL 4 – CHI 0
ANA 4 – LAK 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How Blues have kept winning without Tarasenko

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When we last checked in with the St. Louis Blues a few weeks ago the defending champs were off to a sluggishly inconsistent start and then got the one piece of news they absolutely did not need — Vladimir Tarasenko, their most impactful player and biggest star, was going to be sidelined for the next five months. It was a disappointing start to their title defense, and it seemed like it could have at least had the potential to put them in another early hole in the Western Conference they would have to dig out of.

Instead, the opposite has happened. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes riding a seven-game winning streak and have climbed back to the top of the West standings, owning what is by far the best points percentage (.750) in the conference.

Considering the injury situation it is an impressive run and quick turnaround. How have they managed to stay so hot, and can they keep it rolling? It is a nice run of success, but there are definitely some red flags that come along with it.

The power play and overtime domination has carried the offense

Two things stand out about the Blues’ current winning streak. The first is that five of those wins have come in overtime, with two of those overtime goals being scored on power play opportunities.

Somewhat related to that is the fact the power play itself is clicking at a 29.6% rate over the past eight games, the second best success rate in the NHL during that stretch. All of that is making up for the fact that the Blues have scored just 12 goals during 5-on-5 play and have one of the worst scoring rates in the league at even-strength (more on this below).

This should be a concern because you can only rely on your power play to carry you for so long, and you’re not always going to get that sort of opportunity in overtime. Overtime itself can be a huge coin flip due to the unpredictable nature of the 3-on-3 situation. Sometimes you will get the bear, and sometimes the bear will get you (this five-game OT winning streak came after losing three OT/SO games in a row earlier in the year).

Jordan Binnington has gone on a roll

This is probably the biggest part of the Blues’ recent run. Binnington has won each of his past five starts and has a .930 save percentage in the six games since Tarasenko went out of the lineup. He was one of the players off to a slow start at the beginning of the year and his recent turnaround has resulted in him putting the team on his back and carrying it.

(We should also acknowledge that Jake Allen has also contributed, winning two games during the winning streak with a very respectable .914 save percentage).

Binnington’s play has been so important because the Blues are not controlling shot attempts and scoring chances like they did a year ago. Even during this recent winning streak (since Oct. 25) the Blues are among the worst teams in total shot attempt differential (28th), scoring chance differential (28th), high-danger scoring chance differential (30th), and expected goal differential (30th). It is a small sampling, yes, but it is also a dramatic fall from where they were a year ago after the coaching change when they were one of the best teams in all of those categories. (All via Natural Stat Trick)

Something to keep in mind: Even though their defensive play isn’t quite as good as it was in the second half and in the playoffs, a lot of their struggles in these differentials have to do with what they are not creating offensively as opposed to what they are giving up. Across the board they have been the worst 5-on-5 team in the league when it comes to generating shots, chances, high-danger chances, and yes, even goals. This is an example of where they are really missing an impact player like Tarasenko, and it really puts a ton of pressure on the goalies to have no margin for error because one or two goals could be too much to overcome.

The results are good, the process is concerning

This is really what it comes down to.

The Blues are winning games right now, yes, but the process behind those wins is concerning when it comes to their long-term outlook. These points they have collected over the past two weeks are important, and they have definitely built themselves a nice cushion in the playoff race, but if they keep playing this way the wins may not be as frequent as they currently are.

At times last year the Blues looked like a team that was doing everything right with the way it played and just needed to fix its goaltending  to get on the right track. They do not have that same feel right now.

If they want to keep getting the same results this year something is going to have to change in their process to generate more offense at even-strength, and that might require a trade to help replace what they are missing with Tarasenko.

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.

Pietrangelo and beyond: Faulk’s impact on Blues’ salary cap future

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It wasn’t all that surprising that the Carolina Hurricanes traded Justin Faulk, but it absolutely was a little stunning that the St. Louis Blues ended up being the winner of that sweepstakes on Tuesday.

In fact, Faulk seemed surprised, too, so it’s not that off base.

Maybe we should have seen this coming, as the Blues were very quiet this summer, and made a big impact last year by landing Ryan O'Reilly. Either way, acquiring Faulk amplified a question people already had: what about Alex Pietrangelo?

When Faulk’s contract extension kicks during the 2020-21 season, it will carry a $6.5 million AAV. It’s a strangely fitting mark, as Pietrangelo carries a $6.5M cap hit for 2019-20, the final year of his current deal.

One cannot help but wonder if the Blues view Faulk as a replacement for Pietrangelo, right down to both being right-handed defensemen who can run a power play.

This is all fair to ask, as Pietrangelo is almost certain to make a significant raise from $6.5M per year. Without a Norris Trophy to his name, Pietrangelo might not command Drew Doughty money of $11M, but who knows? Demand figures to be high for Pietrangelo either way, even though he’ll turn 30 on Jan. 18.

Pietrangelo’s future is the biggest question that springs from the trade-plus-extension for Faulk, but it’s not the only interesting conundrum for the Blues. Let’s consider some of the questions ahead, including how Pietrangelo might fit in.

After 2019-20

Again, Pietrangelo is the headliner, but he’s not the only relevant expiring contract.

Cap Friendly estimates the Blues’ spending at about $65.6M with 16 roster spots covered for 2020-21. If the salary cap ceiling stays at $81.5M, the Blues would have about $16M to work with.

Rob Thomas and Jordan Kyrou could easily fill roster spots on their entry-level deals, which expire after 2020-21.

The Blues could actually do some juggling to keep Pietrangelo, especially if the ceiling goes up. They’d need to make a painful choice or two, possibly letting Schenn walk, but it’s not outside the realm of reason, especially if Pietrangelo takes a little less than his highest market value.

There are also some two-year deals the Blues could try to get out of …

After 2020-21

  • Both of their goalies only have two years left on their current contracts, with Jordan Binnington, 26, costing $4.4M and Jake Allen, 29, at $4.35M. It was a little surprising that the Blues didn’t trade Allen during this offseason, but if they can unload him sometime between now and next offseason, that could open up crucial space for Pietrangelo and/or Schenn. This current arrangement does provide some buffer if Binnington falters after his breakthrough, but the Blues likely don’t want to spend this much on a backup if that’s Allen’s fate.
  • Alexander Steen, 35, carries a heavy $5.75M. His salary is $5.5M in 2019-20, and then drops to $3.5M; maybe that would make Steen palatable for a cap-bribery trade to a team like the Ottawa Senators?
  • Tyler Bozak, 33, is expendable at $5M per year.
  • Jaden Schwartz, 27, could get a raise from $5.35M.

As you can see, there are some situations where the Blues might be able to free up some breathing room, particularly if they can convince someone to absorb Steen’s cap hit (or even a portion of it) for 2020-21.

Between Bozak, David Perron ($4M per year through 2021-22), and other mid-level players, St. Louis could conceivably cut out some inessentials.

This also serves as a reminder that teams should remain careful about giving depth players bigger commitments. If Oskar Sundqvist ($2.75M through 2022-23) indirectly costs the Blues a better player, that could sting.

***

It won’t be easy for the Blues to keep Pietrangelo, as Faulk could create an imbalance with Colton Parayko also being a prominent right-handed defenseman. While Faulk could give the Blues a relevant short-term boost, the long-term implications are messy.

That said, as you can see from the exercise above, there are ways that Blues GM Doug Armstrong can wiggle out of the toughest losses. That would mean waving goodbye to a surplus player or two, maybe even someone very useful like Schenn, but it’s possible.

Beyond seeing the Blues try to repeat, it will also be fascinating to see if they can keep the band together — or at least the virtuoso performers. Check out the Blues’ Cap Friendly page if you want to dig even deeper.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.