by Elise Butler | AHL On The Beat Archive
It was April 15, 2012, and 18-year-old Jordan Binnington was in the depths of Allstate Arena. Set to make his first start in the American Hockey League in the last game of the 2011-12 season, the netminder donned his No. 40 Peoria Rivermen jersey and took the ice to face the Midwest Division rival Chicago Wolves.
“I remember before the game and I was in the visitor’s locker room taping my stick, and my hands were shaking like crazy,” Binnington said. “I had to get out of there because I thought the team was going to look at me and be like, ‘Holy, we’re in for one tonight, boys.’”
It was the first and last start that he would make for Peoria. In a barrage of 38 shots, Binnington stopped 35 of them that night, suffering the 4-2 loss on his record but earning the No. 3 star for his efforts.
Three seasons later, following more seasoning with his junior team and one year in the ECHL, Binnington returned to Allstate Arena. But this time he got to go to the home team’s dressing room.
One-half of the Wolves’ 2014-15 goaltending tandem, the rookie has made the jump to the AHL full-time and is working to continue his development with a team that has helped hone the craft of National Hockey League goaltenders including Jake Allen, Ondrej Pavelec, and Kari Lehtonen.
“We were very comfortable with him going into the year and just hoping that he would grow,” said Wolves head coach John Anderson. “And he has.”
Anderson has allowed both Binnington and veteran goaltender Matt Climie, who is exactly 10 years and five months his partner’s senior, their time in the crease. After beginning the season typically alternating starts, both netminders have gone on runs. But, with an injury to Climie in mid-January, the net has belonged solely to the rookie as he set a regular-season franchise record with 17 consecutive starts from Jan. 17 to March 1, smashing the previous record of 13 held by Climie and Michael Garnett.
The young goaltender has been impressive despite the heavy workload, posting a 9-6-2 record, 2.31 goals-against average, .920 save percentage, and one shutout during the stretch. It brings to mind another Wolves success story in Pavelec, who started 24 consecutive postseason games while backstopping the Wolves to their most recent Calder Cup in 2008. It is not the first time the two have been mentioned in the same sentence; Binnington’s five consecutive wins in November were the most by a Wolves rookie goaltender since Pavelec.
While the season has had both its ups and its downs, the record-breaking streak has shown Binnington’s growth over the past five months.
“At the start of the year sometimes things aren’t going your way and you have to stick with it and overcome them, overcome what’s going on, and I think I did that,” Binnington said. “The coaching staff’s been good, they’ve showed some confidence in me. But I think I need to continue to prove myself and show them what I can do and do it for myself. I really want to develop in these early years of my pro career and consistently get better. So any way I can do that, I’ll try to do.”
While Binnington’s life as a pro is just starting, he has already received numerous accolades in his young career. He racked up the honors during his four-year junior career with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League, including 2012-13 OHL Goaltender of the Year, 2013 OHL First All-Star Team, 2010-11 Memorial Cup All-Star Team, 2010-11 Memorial Cup Most Outstanding Goaltender, and a selection to the 2010-11 Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects Game. In addition he helped backstop his team to an OHL championship in 2011 and, by the time he was finished in Owen Sound, passed former NHLer Curtis Sanford for the top spot in all-time wins for the franchise. But, above all, Binnington found out what it took to earn all this.
“I learned a lot of things,” he said. “Sometimes I wasn’t working too hard in practice, but as a rookie the veterans put you in your place and that’s how you learn, right? So a couple guys helped me figure that one out pretty quick. After that year, we ended up winning the championship and then went to the Memorial Cup and then got drafted by the Blues.”
Binnington was selected by St. Louis with their fourth selection, 88th overall, in the third round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He made the jump to pro last season, spending training camp with the Wolves but ultimately ending up with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL, one level below the AHL. With two experienced goaltenders in Climie and Allen (who ended up winning AHL Goaltender of the Year), there was simply no room for Binnington.
“In my position personally, if I was up here, being a third goalie here or a backup goalie or whatever, I really wouldn’t have gotten any playing time and I don’t think it would have benefited me in the long run,” Binnington said. “So sometimes I think you need to understand that and keep working and keep your mindset for what you want and what you want to get out of it.”
He did get one game in with the Wolves — a 4-3 shootout win over Rockford on Jan. 5 in front of a raucous home crowd — but spent the majority of the season in Kalamazoo developing his game. With Allen transitioning into a full-time role for St. Louis this season, Binnington got his shot and has made the most of it thus far, impressing with both his skill and affable personality.
Playing a position that is often considered one of the most mental in the game, the young goaltender has been praised by scouts and coaches alike specifically for his demeanor and temperament, on and off the ice.
“He’s calm,” Anderson said. “He’s very calm. He doesn’t get rattled very easily and I think it gives everybody a good feeling. Like there can be a big scramble around the net and he’ll grab the puck and settle everything down. I think his calmness and almost a positive feeling about how he plays are his strengths.”
For Binnington, that quality has been instilled in him by his parents. The 21-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ontario, credits his mother and father for helping him develop his unruffled manner, both through advice and by example.
“My outlook on the game is to not get too wound up,” said Binnington, who described both his parents as even-keeled. “I used to have that problem and my dad let me know that it wasn’t working for me.”
It is this support that keeps Binnington heading on the path he is now. No journey is without its twists and turns, and the netminder has used his relationships to build a support system around himself that helps him navigate the grueling life of a professional athlete.
“Whether it’s your agent, your goalie coach, your family, there’s always people for you to talk to,” he said. “So I think that’s a big thing with me. I have a few people I like to call if I ever am getting too distracted or too ahead of myself, just knock me down a notch if I need it, or boost me for that matter. Sometimes you get a little down on yourself and it’s nice to have these people here to remind you that you’re where you are for a reason and people believe in you.”
And the Wolves believe in Binnington, even if it might still be a few seasons before he is ready for the next level. Goaltenders typically take the longest of the three positions to develop behind forwards and defensemen.
“He’s such a young guy,” Anderson said. “I see so much potential in him, you know. But you have to remember, it took Jake four years.”
Allen and Binnington draw some comparisons; it is hard not to when the pair of goaltenders are considered St. Louis’ future in net. Anderson said he sees some of the same qualities – size, good glove, quick feet – in both, and that time and Binnington himself will determine whether he, too, will move on to be a successful NHL backstop.
“One thing you can learn from him is he works every single day, no matter what,” Binnington said, calling Allen a great goalie and person. “He doesn’t really have too many off-days and that’s one thing I really took away from him. Seeing his progression over the last couple years and hearing what people have been saying, you can take little things from everyone you work with or watch that’s successful.”
Among the primary people Binnington works with in Chicago are Wolves goaltending coach Stan Dubicki and Blues goalie development coach Ty Conklin. Together they are focused on the netminder’s footwork, patience, and movement to match the faster level of play. Additionally, Binnington is trying to get stronger overall and bring more consistency to his game.
“If you look back at every year you play, you’ll always be able to say, ‘I let in a couple of goals that I wish I had back,’ you know?” Binnington said. “You’re always going to let in bad goals. But a personal [goal] of mine is to limit that amount of goals that you kind of think to yourself, ‘Ah, I should have had that one.’ It all adds up at the end of the year.”
While he still has steps to take and things to improve, Binnington’s presence has been appreciated in Chicago by his coaches, teammates, and fans alike.
“He’s just been an awesome kid, really good kid,” Anderson said. “I keep teasing him that he’s so thin he’s got to go hang around with our training staff and have a few more burgers, but he’s a wonderful boy and I’m really happy with him in that sense. He’s been a good teammate for everybody.”