Plenty has been said about the meteoric rise of St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington this season. The 25-year-old rookie began the year as the team’s fourth-string option in net and did not make his first NHL start until January. Yet, he miraculously managed to pick up 24 wins in the second half of the season behind a league-best 1.89 goals against average and has led the Blues to the Stanley Cup Final. Part of Binnington’s dominance is that his emergence from obscurity meant that most opponents this season had little to no experience with facing him. However, the part of Binnington’s story that is now in the spotlight, and one that many still may not realize, is that last season Binnington played for none other than the AHL’s Providence Bruins.
Without an AHL affiliate in 2017-18, St. Louis was forced to split their minor league prospects between several AHL teams. With limited options for play time in net, the Blues opted to leave Ville Husso with many of his teammates on the San Antonio Rampage – now the team’s new affiliate – and loaned Binnington by himself to Providence for the year. Binnington played well, but made just 28 appearances over the course of the season as the backup to the Bruins’ Zane McIntyre. More importantly, he spent the whole campaign with the team.
Could this be an advantage for Boston in their upcoming Stanley Cup clash with the Blues? It certainly won’t hurt, but the bulk of the Bruins’ regulars did not spend much time in Providence last season. Of the players to skate in at least half of Boston’s games this season, only Danton Heinen and Matt Grzelcyk suited up for Providence last season and the pair combined for just 18 early-season games. Even current Bruins reserves like Peter Cehlarik, Trent Frederic, and Karson Kuhlman (none of whom are likely to draw into the Cup Final anyway) only spent limited time playing with Binnington. And the P-Bruins’ top players from last season – Austin Czarnik, Kenny Agostino, Colby Cave – have since departed the organization.
The one outlier, and potential Stanley Cup x-factor, is defenseman Connor Clifton. Clifton played the full season in Providence last year and spent much of this season in the AHL as well. However, Clifton has jumped on the opportunity presented by injuries to Kevan Miller and John Moore and has asserted himself as a starter for the Bruins this season. Even with Moore now healthy, as well as Steven Kampfer in the mix, the rookie defenseman has held on to his spot on the right side of the team’s bottom pair. Clifton has been trusted with meaningful minutes and even recorded his first NHL goal in the Eastern Conference Final. A player on the smaller side who makes up for his lack of stature with both tenacity and intelligence, Clifton is not a player to be overlooked and his experience playing with Binnington could be key for the Bruins.
Of course, Providence head coach Jay Leach and organizational goalie coach Bob Essensa, among others, will also surely have input on Binnington. So too will former net mate McIntyre, who has served as Boston’s emergency third-string goalie in recent weeks. There’s no reason to believe that one season as the minor league backup for the Bruins will give the team all they need to totally figure out the red-hot goaltender, but Boston may have a slight advantage over other teams this postseason when it comes to beating Binnington.