Blues Goaltending: View From the Crease (November 2022)

No one expected that the St. Louis Blues would be 5-8-0 13 games into the season or that general manager Doug Armstrong would have already openly discussed the possibility of a rebuild. But that is where Blues fans find themselves, teetering on the edge of a potentially long and painful organizational restructure (though the 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night offers a little hope).

While the Blues’ front office may still be deciding on the urgency or even the necessity of a rebuild, there is no question that goaltending plays a major role in any team’s fortunes. So what better time than now to analyze the Blues’ organizational goaltending, looking at every netminder in the system one by one? We’ll assess the strengths of each goalie, their long-term future with the club, and what role they might play in a looming rebuilding process. We will also include the goaltender’s age to give perspective on their potential longevity.

Jordan Binnington (29)

Starting goaltender Jordan Binnington is a point of controversy in St. Louis and around the NHL. Whatever his off-ice antics, his on-ice performance is of bigger concern here. And lately, his results have been found wanting. Since the 2020-21 season, he has just a .905 save percentage (SV%), and a goals-against average (GAA) of about 2.91. He has minus-6.7 goals saved above average (GSAA), a measure of his performance against the league-average goaltenders in his peer group, and he has delivered a quality start only 48.9 percent of the time. None of those numbers are worthy of a franchise-centerpiece goaltender.

Jordan Binnington St. Louis Blues
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Binnington once carried this team to Stanley Cup glory almost singlehandedly. But he cannot live forever on his past successes. Unfortunately, the six-year, $36 million contract he signed has become an albatross for the Blues very quickly. He still has flashes of brilliance, as he showed in last season’s playoffs or in the game against Vegas. But it is fair at this point to wonder whether he will ever be consistent enough for the team to depend on him as their true number one. Either way, he is entrenched in the team for the next several seasons. It is unlikely Armstrong could find a buyer for his contract now, even if he was inclined to.

Thomas Greiss (36)

Armstrong signed Thomas Greiss to be Binnington’s backup this season, taking a huge gamble that the latter would return to his Stanley Cup form. It has not turned out to be the case, as we just discussed. For his part, Greiss has been a below-average backup, as anyone could have anticipated when the team signed him. In his four games, he has a .899 SV% and a sky-high 3.78 GAA. Those numbers would be bad enough if Binnington were looking strong. Together, it paints a bleak picture of the Blues’ fortunes between the posts. On the bright side, Greiss was always a one-season solution and will depart as an unrestricted free agent (UFA) after the season. That departure could potentially clear the way for our next goaltender to become the team’s backup.

Joel Hofer (22)

Blues fans entered the season hoping that a strong playoff performance from Binnington last season might be the sign of a turn of fortunes in his career. While that might not have panned out for him, it seems to be the case for Joel Hofer, the towering starting netminder for the Blues’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds. Hofer had an up-and-down first full season in the AHL, but once the playoffs arrived, he transformed, carrying a .934 SV% and a 2.56 GAA with a shutout through ten games. That performance helped propel the Thunderbirds to the Calder Cup Final, where they fell in five games to the Chicago Wolves.

Related: Blues Prospect Report: Neighbours, Hofer, Robertsson

Hofer’s strong play has carried over into this season. Through nine games, he has kept a .923 SV% and a 2.43 GAA — terrific numbers at the AHL level. It’s a return to form for the star prospect who once led Team Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship (WJC). Goaltending development is unpredictable, rarely occurring in a straight line. But with Hofer’s size (6-foot-5) and his pedigree, combined with his recent performance, there’s every reason to believe he’s on track to be the Blues’ long-term answer in net. With Greiss out of the picture next season, it’s not impossible that he earns the role as the Blues’ backup in the 2023-24 season and challenges Binnington for more playing time as his career progresses.

Vadim Zherenko (21)

The Blues took Vadim Zherenko with the 208th pick in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL Draft. This low-risk selection might turn out to be a diamond in the rough, as the 21-year-old netminder has already come over to the United States and is now the backup in Springfield.

Zherenko had a standout career in Russia at the junior level. In fact, from 2018-2021, his SV% never dropped below .915 at various levels. Last season, he graduated to Liiga, the top adult league in Finland, and he struggled for the first time, dropping to a .902 SV% and a 2.67 GAA in 30 games. But earning 30 games as a 20-year-old in Finland’s top league is no small feat, and it was enough to earn him the call over to the United States. He saw time in the preseason and is now the backup in Springfield, where he has a .932 SV% and a 2.48 GAA in four games.

It’s difficult to project Zherenko’s future career, but he has several things going for him. He has a lot of success and experience at a young age, and he’s already in the U.S., which is a big win for a Russian goalie. Zherenko is clearly a step behind Hofer in his development, but he could continue to overperform his draft capital and become an actual weapon for the Blues in the future.

Colten Ellis (22)

Drafted four rounds ahead of Zherenko in 2019, Colten Ellis has to be a little disappointed to be the odd man out of the team’s AHL tandem. He once seemed to be one of the team’s brightest young backstops, even setting the QMJHL all-time shutout record in his junior career. But last season, his first in the pros, was rough. Six games in the AHL saw him with a .880 SV%, and in 34 games with the Worcester Railers of the ECHL, he had a .905 SV% and a 3.21 GAA.

Colten Ellis of the Rimouski Oceanic
Colten Ellis of the Rimouski Oceanic (courtesy Rimouski Oceanic)

Ellis is still obviously young, and he has plenty of time to improve his prospects, but he’s sunk behind both Hofer and Zherenko in the pecking order. Only time will tell if he can regain his form and overtake either of them in the Blues’ plans. Three games into his season with the Tulsa Oilers (ECHL) this season, he still seems to be struggling to find his way.

Will Cranley (20)

Drafted with the 163rd pick (sixth round) in the 2020 Draft, Will Cranley is the youngest goalie in this group and the only one still in junior hockey. His Ontario Hockey League (OHL) numbers haven’t impressed. But a recent trade to the Flint Firebirds might have turned his fortunes. So far this season, he has a .910 SV% and a 3.19 SV%, both improvements on his career numbers. He’s still too young to evaluate fairly and it seems like a long shot that he emerges from this group as the real goalie of the future, but as Binnington himself has proved, anything can happen when it comes to goalies.

Hope But Not Clarity

The Blues’ future in net is anything but clear. Binnington has the reins for the foreseeable future. There is hope for goalies like Hofer or Zherenko to eventually be his replacement. But there is no clear favorite or #1 prospect, nor any solution for the immediate struggles of the team between the pipes. There’s reason for hope in St. Louis, but the goaltending picture is still as cloudy as anything.