A year ago, the Blues were wrapping up the off-season and preparing their Stanley Cup defense. Obviously, a major reason that they got to the playoffs, let alone won the Cup, was Jordan Binnington. The mid-season call-up was on the last year of his contract, and the pieces - and performance - fell into place for an extension.
Jake Allen, however, was not on his game last season. He has been an inconsistent goaltender throughout his career, vacillating between highs and lows. The highs gave Blues fans fantastic playoff performances and the lows came mid-season in January and February like clockwork.
The organization obviously placed some eggs in Binnington’s basket when they re-signed him last off-season. You don’t lead a team to a Stanley Cup and not get a raise, and Doug Armstrong offered him a two-year bridge deal for an AAV of $4.4 million a season. Both goaltenders are paid a similar salary (Binnington gets $50,000 a year more than Allen), but fans assumed that their roles on the team would be very different. Binnington was the clear cut starter, and Allen the backup, right?
Instead, as the season progressed, it reverted to a 1A and 1B tandem that resembled the days of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Allen does well with competition; he did well with Elliott, and as the season progressed it became clear that he was going to do well in that role with Binnington.
What surprised fans was that the 1A and 1B tandem existed to begin with. Binnington’s numbers, which were at a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage for the 2018-2019 season, dipped to a 2.56 GAA and a .912 save percentage by the end of this season. Allen’s season was a resurgence. In 2018-2019, Allen’s GAA was a career-worst 2.83, and his save percentage was .905; it wasn’t shocking that Blues fans had relegated him to the backup role at the start of the last season.
By the end of the 2019-2020 season, Allen (in about half of the games played as compared to the previous season) had a 2.15 GAA and a .927 save percentage. Binnington was the lock to start the playoffs based on his previous year’s success, but Allen’s improved play provided the team with a cushion.
Fans and the team didn’t expect Allen to start two games in round one, but that’s what happened.
Allen’s strong play in those games stood in contrast to Binnington’s playoff numbers. Binnington finished the round-robin and round one with a 0-5 record, a 4.72 GAA, and a .851 save percentage. Allen, by contrast, finished 2-1-1 with a 1.89 GAA and a .935 save percentage. Allen allowed nine goals in four games; Binnington allowed 21 in five.
In five games.
If that doesn’t shift a narrative, I don’t know what does. Fans went from saying that Allen’s stellar season inflated his trade value to being very quiet on what they feel his future should be. The security blanket that Binnington turned into after winning the Cup is in tatters, at least if you believe what some folks are saying on Twitter.
It is certainly a shock, just like it’s a shock that the Blues got bounced in the first round. What does Doug Armstrong do now? Where does Binnington go from here?
And which season’s Jordan Binnington is what Blues fans can expect next season?
Jordan Binnington has one more year left on his bridge deal. Armstrong smartly signed him to a shorter contract because he realized that January-June 2020 is a small window; the playoffs especially are small sample size. Goalies can catch lightning in a bottle just as easily as a team can, and Armstrong needed to make sure that lightning stayed put. This year, it did not.
In his media exit interview, Binnington was typically contrite in his evaluation of his performance:
“I know how good I am, and how good I can be,” Binnington said. “I expect better of myself. Sometimes it’s not gonna go your way and you gotta get back on the horse, keep working and find your way.”
Some may read that as confidence, some as arrogance. But the key part of that statement is the last half. You can’t ride success into the sunset, and you can’t ride failure either. Complacency is the enemy of greatness and dejection is the enemy of improvement. Binnington realizes that next season he will have to re-prove his worth to Armstrong and the team.
You can argue that the Blues’ defense played poorly in front of Binnington, and they certainly did. He played fine during the round-robin, but not stellar. The defense did him no favors in the first round, but he didn’t do himself any favors either.
I hate to draw conclusions from a small sample, and year to year performance can be very different for a goaltender or a hockey team. Next year, the Blues won’t be the same team that they were this year. They weren’t the same team this year as they were when they won the Cup. Many variables can influence a team’s success; what’s difficult is that while the team’s success can bolster a goaltender, that street goes two ways. It’s a chicken or an egg situation.
Blues fans, and obviously Doug Armstrong, need to use next season as an indicator of what direction the team and Binnington are going. This post-season, and the regression during this regular season, need to be in the back of Armstrong’s mind. They should be in the back of Binnington’s mind as well.
Binnington’s post-season was a failure, and his regular season was a mediocrity by his standards. Armstrong’s bridge deal looks smarter than it did when he signed it. He has a year to prove himself.
The bigger issue, and one that the Blues should be concerned with, is the future of Jake Allen. It’s become increasingly clear that having another proven goaltender as part of the Blues’ tandem is a safety net that the team needs - at least until Binnington bounces back.