Binnington helps Blues narrowly defeat Jets in his postseason debut

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The Winnipeg Jets tested Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Mark Scheifele ran into him out of the gate and Patrik Laine beat him with a huge goal early in the first period, but Binnington didn’t unravel in his postseason debut. He kept the Blues in the contest until they could battle back in the third period to earn a 2-1 victory over Winnipeg in Game 1.

“Yeah, (Binnington) did a great job … early on, with the Scheifele thing … but that’s part of the playoffs and he handled it well, and he played a hell of a game,” Blues coach Craig Berube said.

Binnington has been the story of the Blues’ campaign thus far. He didn’t start the season in the NHL, but with St. Louis struggling mightily and the Blues’ goaltending not living up to expectations, Chad Johnson was put on waivers in December. With the opening that created, it wasn’t long until Binnington became the spark St. Louis needed, guiding the Blues into the playoffs with a 24-5-1 record, 1.89 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 32 games.

It wasn’t all Binnington though. This was a hard fought battle against two teams that looked even. The third period was certainly St. Louis’ though. The Jets’ 1-0 lead was finally eliminated at 4:05 of the third period when David Perron scored just his fifth goal in 58 career playoff games. Tyler Bozak, who like Perron was signed as a UFA over the summer, scored the winner with just 2:05 left. Pat Maroon, yet another summer addition, deserves a lot of credit for carrying the puck and setting up Bozak on the deciding goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That gave the Jets plenty of time to have one more sustained shot at Binnington, but nothing got by him with the pressure on.

St. Louis was one of the hottest teams in the league coming into the playoffs. The Blues went 28-8-5 in the second half, which isn’t far behind the dominate Tampa Bay Lightning’s 30-9-2 record in their final 41 games. That strong finish made up for St. Louis’ rocky start and resulted in St. Louis tying Winnipeg in terms of regular season points at 99.

Even if Game 1 was in Winnipeg by virtue of the tiebreaker, St. Louis can hardly be classified as the underdog and this win isn’t a true upset. It was a close game between two evenly matched squads in a series that’s far from decided.

Blues-Jets Game 2 from Bell MTS Place will be Friday night at 9:30 p.m. ET on CNBC

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Maple Leafs ’15-16 Outlook

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After finishing with a 30-44-8 record last season, the Maple Leafs have undergone substantial changes, but none of the decisions made were about getting back into the playoffs in the short-term. When the Maple Leafs dealt Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, it was a clear sign that they were embracing a rebuild and its 2015-16 roster will reflects the early stages of that transition.

Toronto isn’t likely to enter the season with a lot of promising youngsters on its squad, but that will come later. For now, the Maple Leafs have signed veterans that can serve as placeholders like Shawn Matthias and P.A. Parenteau to give the top prospects time to develop properly. Matthias and Parenteau are only inked for one season and both might be traded at the deadline for picks or prospects to continue the Maple Leafs’ long-term goals.

Other veterans like Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, and Tyler Bozak might also end up being dealt either before the season or at the deadline. In addition to providing the Maple Leafs with more assets, moving them would also increase Toronto’s chances of ending up with projected 2016 top pick Auston Matthews.

Meanwhile, Toronto has undergone a massive transformation on the management side as president Brendan Shanahan is now supported by GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock, which provides the franchise with the experience to see this rebuild through to the end. That’s a new thing for Toronto because while the franchise has barely seen any playoff actions since the start of the salary cap era, that hasn’t previously led to the Maple Leafs fully embracing a long-term rebuilding effort.

In fact, trading Kessel is the perfect symbol of the philosophical shift, not just because of what he represented now, but also due to the context of his acquisition. When Toronto got him back in 2009 for two first-round draft picks, it was a sign that then GM Brian Burke wanted to move forward without a traditional rebuild. That didn’t work, so now a new group is trying a different, more patient approach.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

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When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf

Babcock expects Kadri to be ‘an elite player’

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Expectations for Nazem Kadri have always been high. When you’re a seventh overall draft pick, that’s going to be the case.

But with Phil Kessel gone and Tyler Bozak potentially out the door next, new coach Mike Babcock expects the 24-year-old Maple Leafs center — armed with a one-year, prove-it contract —  to take his game to another level next season.

“I expect him to be an elite player,” Babcock said of Kadri, per the Toronto Star.

“He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us. Why wouldn’t he? If I’m him, I’m going to have the best year of my career because I’m training the way I should and living the way I should, then why wouldn’t I have a short-term deal?”

Kadri finished 2014-15 with 18 goals and 21 assists in 73 games. While those numbers don’t exactly scream “elite player,” it should be noted he played mostly with Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli.

With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see if Babcock gives Kadri more time with James van Riemsdyk, who skated almost exclusively with Kessel and Bozak on Toronto’s much-maligned first line.

Related: Leafs sign Matthias — one year, $2.3 million

Leafs sign Matthias — one year, $2.3 million

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed forward Shawn Matthias to a one-year contract worth a reported $2.3 million.

Matthias finished with a career-high 18 goals last season in Vancouver, and he did so in a bottom-six role with barely any time on the power play.

Th 27-year-old can play either center or wing, making him a good match for a team that may or may not trade center Tyler Bozak.

Matthias could also net the Leafs something at the trade deadline, a la Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli this past season. That’s assuming Toronto’s out of the playoff picture at that time.