If there’s one thing that the St. Louis Blues have been known for in recent years, it’s goaltending tandems. Last season saw Ville Husso step in as the 1B goalie, and arguably the eventual 1A goalie, as Jordan Binnington’s struggles mounted through March. Before that, it was the tandem of Binnington and Jake Allen. Before that it was Allen and Carter Hutton. Before Hutton arrived it was Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, who were as close in comparison to Binnington as Husso’s season last year as you can get.
Before that, it was... you get the drift.
Clearly, the Blues thrive with a tandem and have been extremely fortunate to have been able to have backups that felt comfortable stepping in when the starter at season open had issues. Fans have a tendency to parlay this into a goalie controversy, but in all honestly, it’s been effective asset management by Doug Armstrong.
Until recently, the 1B came cheaply and the 1A was reasonably priced leaving room for both on the roster. Allen’s final contract with the Blues came with a $4.35 million cap hit; Hutton’s was $1,125,000. Elliott’s final contract was for a hit of $2,500,000. Before his current contract, Binnington’s cap hit was $4,400,000, just a slight bit above Jake Allen’s deal. While Binnington was backing up Allen to overtake him as starter in 2018-2019, his salary was just $650,000 at the NHL level.
Clearly, last year’s combination of Binnington’s $6 million cap hit and Husso’s $750,000 hit was fine to begin with, but the outcome looked suspiciously like that of 2018-2019. The higher paid goaltender faltered and the cheap backup had a career season that ensured a pay hike. The difference here is that the Blues had space to work with the RFA in Binnington, who had just won them a Cup - and last season they did not have the space to work with UFA Husso, who found the playoffs to be a different beast than the regular season.
One had to go, and of course it was Husso. Husso’s loss cleared just $750K off of the books, and the Blues found themselves in such a crunch with a static cap that signing a goaltender at much more than that salary was undoable. They were forced to either downgrade at goal or have a substantial sum locked up in net for the forseeable future.
The team chose their faith in Binnington’s continued rebound over having a 1B. Instead of Husso, the team signed 36 year old goaltender Thomas Greiss for $1.25 million, Greiss’ lowest contract deal since 2014-2015 (adjusted for inflation, the terms are nearly identical). Greiss just concluded a two year, $3,600,000 cap hit per deal with the Detroit Red Wings.
What happens now is as good of a guess as any. Binnington’s struggles began early last season - earlier than Jake Allen’s notorious mid-year yips - and Husso emerged from the year as the clear number one. It took playoff pressure to drive Husso out of the net and get Binnington back into it, and it took connecting with Nazem Kadri to knock Binnington back out of the crease again.
Was this Binnington getting back into the game or a flash in the pan? Despite how well he played in the post-season, that was a small sample size. His stats in each year since he’s won the Stanley Cup have crept upward. In 2019-2020, he finished with a 2.56 GAA and a .912 SV%; in 2020-2021 he finished with a 2.65 GAA and a .910 SV%, and last season he finished with a 3.13 GAA and a .901 SV%. He hasn’t outright won a playoff series since the Blues won the Stanley Cup; he split the duties with Husso in the Blues’ first round win over the Wild. His games started have dropped, as have his win totals.
What happens if Binnington and the Blues find themselves in a similar situation this year? It’s hard to get a read on where Greiss will factor in. His last two years with Detroit were spent on a team that has a bright future but also suffered from serious growing pains. He started in 29 games in 2020-2021 and won just eight, with a 2.70 GAA and a .912 SV%, comparable stats to Binnington’s but in fewer games played (and with a lower win total). Last season Greiss’ win total improved to ten, but his stats ballooned to a 3.66 GAA and a .891 SV%.
Clearly playing behind the Blues’ defense, even with its issues, is much different than playing behind Detroit’s defense. It’s difficult to come into an organization like the Blues from a rebuilding organization like the Red Wings and not have some statistical improvement. Before his time in Detroit began, Greiss was fine, with 2018-2019 being a statistical highlight.
But as we’re seeing with Binnington, a good run in 2018-2019 doesn’t necessarily translate into consistent success down the road.
The Blues might have their work cut out for them this season in net. Never underestimate the team’s ability to turn a perfectly cromulent backup goaltender into a 1B. If Binnington falters early again this season, let’s hope Greiss is a quick study.