As we reach the middle of November, and the NHL is beginning to separate pretenders from contenders, individual players around the NHL have their minds on something other than the final playoff standings: the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. While Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Victor Hedman, and players of their ilk have no doubt about their place on their national teams, other players’ roles are not so secure. The first few months of this season are the best chance for many of those fringe players to prove their mettle, with the national teams’ general managers looking on.
One player who clearly seems to be playing with Beijing on his mind is St. Louis Blues goalkeeper Jordan Binnington. The 28-year-old Richmond Hill, Ontario native has one huge advantage in his favor: his NHL team’s GM is also his prospective national team’s GM, as Doug Armstrong represents both his club and his country. But rabid Canadian fans won’t look favorably on nepotism. If Binnington wants a spot on his nation’s Olympics roster, he’ll have to earn it. And with 10 games under his belt this season, he’s well on his way to removing any doubt.
Binnington’s Remarkable Start
Most fans remember Binnington’s meteoric rise to hockey stardom during the 2018-19 season, where he shot from AHL backup to NHL superstar, leading his team to Stanley Cup glory. In two seasons since then, he’s been a perfectly fine NHL-caliber starter but hasn’t shown consistent highs to rival those of his debut campaign. His 2020-21 results were fair, improved by a strong finish to the season. And that momentum has apparently carried over into this season.
In 10 games to start the 2021-22 season, Binnington has looked better than he has at any point since his first season. He is 6-2-2, with a .922 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.58 goals-against average (GAA), behind a defense that is much more suspect than many he’s played behind before. He’s already managed 2.9 goals saved above average (GSAA), surpassing his total from the entire 2020-21 season. He has made several highlight-reel saves, and, most recently, is almost solely responsible for the Blues taking two points in an undeserved shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets, in which he made 39 saves on 41 shots.
Binnington’s start has been remarkable, and so far, he has done everything under his control to make Team Canada’s roster for Beijing (save for avoiding on-ice controversy, which he has been prone to in his career). But there are a lot of other Canadian goalies out there looking to grab one of three precious spots. Fortunately for Binnington, while he is rising, many of his competitors are sinking.
Canada’s Options in Net Are Limited
Despite their overall hockey dominance, Team Canada actually does not have many elite options between the pipes. It is their clear limitation as a team. Of the 16 goalies that have started double-digit games in the NHL so far this season, only four are Canadian (Binnington, his former teammate Jake Allen, Cam Talbot, and Tristan Jarry). There is incredible national diversity in the NHL goalie ranks, with top backstops coming from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the United States, and, of course, Russia. As a result, Binnington’s competition is more limited than some might imagine. But there are still some significant names he’d have to pass to grab a spot on the final roster. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Carey Price has been the gold standard of Canadian goalkeeping for quite a while, and was the presumed starter for Team Canada after last season, given his remarkable performance in the postseason. But Price voluntarily entered the NHL’s player assistance program just before the season began. He recently exited, spoke publicly about his status and his mental health, and maintained uncertainty about when he would return to the ice for the Montreal Canadiens.
With all of those variables swirling, it is hard to imagine Price will be willing or ready to shoulder the incredible pressure of representing Team Canada in the Olympics. Let’s be clear: that reality is in no way a criticism of Price or his brave decision to deal with his mental health publicly. Athletes desperately need more role models like him. With that said, his current status puts his Beijing availability in extreme doubt, and it’s tough to imagine he’ll take one of the three spots for Canada at this point.
If Price is unavailable, a future Hall of Famer and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner might be a logical substitute. But Marc-Andre Fleury’s first nine games with the Chicago Blackhawks have been disastrous. He’s got an .892 SV% and a 3.81 GAA on the season, with minus-5.9 GSAA already on the season. No one could reasonably place the blame solely at Fleury’s feet: the Blackhawks have been awful defensively. But Armstrong likely won’t want to travel to China with a 37-year-old on shaky footing as his primary goalkeeping option.
In many analyses, Binnington and Kuemper are the two goalies competing for the final of three spots for Team Canada. If that was true, Binnington has certainly put himself ahead so far this season. Kuemper moved to the Colorado Avalanche, a projected top team in the NHL, and he’s been fine. But fine isn’t good enough for the expectations heaped on Colorado entering the season.
In nine games, Kuemper is 5-4-0, with a .911 SV% and a 2.68 GAA, along with minus-0.4 GSAA. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but they certainly don’t compete with Binnington’s start to the season. Depending on Price’s status, and whether Fleury is invited, Kuemper still may well hold down a spot on Team Canada. But the idea that he’ll do it at Binnington’s expense is largely indefensible at this point in the season.
If a goalie apart from Binnington has made a better case to join Team Canada this season, it’s Carter Hart. After a disastrous 2020-21 season that had many questioning the sky-high expectations that had been set out for him, he’s had a fantastic start to the 2021-22 season. Despite a 3-3-2 record, his 9.24 SV%, 2.49 GAA, and 2.9 GSAA are remarkably similar to Binnington’s numbers so far. But Binnington has an edge Hart does not: experience. Hart is just 23, though he did play in 14 playoff games in 2019-20. Binnington, on the other hand, is in his prime and has a Stanley Cup Championship under his belt. No one can argue that Binnington can’t stand up under pressure — in fact, it’s arguably his greatest strength. Hart may one day be the unquestioned starter for Team Canada, but even if he makes the 2022 roster, it likely won’t be as the #1.
Binnington Belongs in Beijing
If recent performance is weighted heavily in deciding a nation’s Olympic roster, there is no denying that Binnington belongs in Beijing in 2022. He was already on the bubble to earn a spot. He has had arguably the best statistical start of any Canadian goalie this season. And he has a pedigree, having won both an OHL Championship and a Stanley Cup in his career. Those factors, combined with the obstacles in front of his potential rivals, have set Binnington up not only to be a likely participant on Team Canada but to potentially head to Beijing as the team’s presumptive starter.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.