The St. Louis Blues ended a 51-season wait and won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history Wednesday night, defeating the Boston Bruins, 4-1, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals on the road at TD Garden.
Ryan O’Reilly, a finalist for the Selke as the best defensive forward in the NHL, was chosen the MVP of the playoffs after finishing with 23 points (eight goals and 15 assists) in 26 games. But 25-year-old rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington was the key to it all.
Binnington started the season with San Antonio of the American Hockey League and was fourth on the Blues’ goaltending depth chart during training camp. To revitalize the team’s goaltending situation, the Blues called up Binnington on Dec. 10 but he didn’t make his first NHL start until Jan. 7. At that point, the Blues were 17-19-4 (with just 38 points) and were ahead of only the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference. Then Binnington took over the Blues’ crease, and St. Louis stared winning games. A lot of games. The team finished the regular season on a 29-9-5 run, including an 11-game winning streak from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19, and Binnington looked like a Vezina Trophy contender, stopping 748 of 807 shots (.927 save percentage) with a league-leading 1.89 goals against average. His performance in the playoffs was equally solid, especially on the road, where he went 10-3 with a .925 save percentage away from Enterprise Center.
“I would say the moral here is dare to dream or never give up,” Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong told NHL.com. “It wasn’t an easy road to get into our organization. He got his opportunity, and he seized it. And then you had to ask, how long can he sustain this? Does water find its level?
“He responded to all those questions. His performance was remarkable.”
So remarkable the only takeaway for a competing front office looking to replicate the Blues success is this: Find a franchise goaltender as soon as you can.
Binnington’s opposite on the Boston Bruins, Tuukka Rask, led the league in save percentage during his first full season (.931 in 2009-10) and won the Vezina Trophy in the 2013-14 season. The Washington Capitals had a Vezina winner -- Braden Holtby, 2016 -- in net, too, during their Cup championship run of 2019.
The Vegas Golden Knights relied on three-time champion Marc-Andre Fleury on the way to the Cup finals last year, their first in existence. The Pittsburgh Penguins had Matt Murray in net for back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017, while the Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh’s opponent in the 2017 Cup finals, countered with Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina a year later.
Corey Crawford won two Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks (2013 and 2015) and Jonathan Quick won two with the Los Angeles Kings (2012 and 2014). Overall, teams that made the playoffs since the league emerged from the lockout of 2004-05 had a higher combined save percentage during the regular season than those that didn’t qualify, and the eventual Stanley Cup winners had an even higher save percentage.
The impact of a solid goaltender is obvious, but good luck trying to find a goalie like Binnington, Holtby or Murray through the NHL draft. Since 2006, there were 288 goaltenders selected in the entry draft. Just 17 of those managed to play at least 100 games in the NHL and post a career save percentage in excess of .910.
It’s hard to find one in free agency, too. Goaltenders scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this offseason include two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky (2013 and 2017) and 2014 Vezina runner-up Semyon Varlamov. However, Varlamov told the Athletic, “I want to stay here because I love this team” in March, and Bobrovsky, at 30 years old, is going to want some financial security after his four-year, $29.7 million contract expires, perhaps in the neighborhood of the six-year, $29.5 million contract Ben Bishop signed with the Dallas Stars in 2017.
A team could pursue Binnington, a restricted free agent, with an offer sheet. The Blues don’t have a lot of cap space ($18.7 million for 11 players, per Cap Friendly) and if Binnington’s camp is looking for a deal in excess of the $4.35 million the team has committed to goaltender Jake Allen in each of the next two seasons, perhaps a enterprising front office could make a play for him. However, that would cost a franchise at least a first- and third-round pick in compensation, and you would have to think St. Louis would find a way to match. Any higher, though, and it could require parting ways with multiple high-round draft picks — a tough call depending on the depth of your minor league system.
It won’t be easy to replicate the Blues success, but one thing is for sure: If you have a goaltender you can rely on, the path to a championship becomes a lot easier.