Last July, roughly three weeks after he backstopped the St. Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup, completing one of the unlikeliest success stories in NHL history, Jordan Binnington sat down in the lounge of a Toronto-area tennis club and mapped out his immediate future.
This wasn’t some half-assed, back-of-the-napkin exercise. Upon showing up to meet with Andy Chiodo, his offseason goalie coach, Binnington promptly spread a stack of notebooks, folders and calendars onto the table, and produced a slick silver pen. “The kind of pen when you have a purpose,” Chiodo says. Over the next hour and a half, Binnington took the lead in plotting every second of his summer schedule: when he would skate, what drills he would do, which areas he would focus on, how long he’d spend on vacation … each day scripted through training camp.
“We didn’t waste much time getting back into it, right?” Binnington, 26, says. “Because there’s still something to prove.”
Considering what he showed in 2018–19, Binnington would’ve hardly been blamed if he’d slacked on his responsibilities and sipped champagne into August. Armed with a signature catchphrase – Do I look nervous? – he had emerged from the minors to haul the Blues out of last place and become the first rookie goalie to win all 16 of his team’s playoff games, posting a .927 save percentage throughout the run and saving 32 shots against Boston in Game 7 of the final. Surely that bought some leeway. “Wasn’t sure what I’d see when he arrived,” says Matt Nichol, Binnington’s trainer in Toronto, “but it was so refreshing.”
To be sure, Binnington set aside plenty of hours for cutting loose. There was the Stanley Cup celebration in his hometown of Richmond Hill, Ont., where he was honored with a parade and a key to the city. And the private bash among friends, for which he had promised after Game 7 that he would “drop like 50k.” He also took a relaxing getaway to Turks and Caicos, stashing his cell phone in the hotel room while plowing through Lenny Dykstra’s autobiography, House of Nails: A Memoir of Life on the Edge, on the beach. (His review: “Pretty badass.”)
Even these moments, though, reflect what Chiodo describes as a “master class” of preparation from Binnington, starting with their meticulous tennis club meeting, no detail too small to weigh. “It was a special summer,” Chiodo says. Sure, Binnington had amassed an all-time hot streak, erasing decades of pain for Blues fans. Yes, he’d signed a new contract worth $4.4 million per year, nearly seven times his old salary, enough to bankroll dozens of ragers if he so desired. But he was also entering 2019–20 with fewer than 60 total NHL games under his garter belt, little time to spare in a compressed offseason and the heightened pressure of life as a champion.
As Chiodo says, “That’s when you tell the world that you’re for real.”
• • •
Depleted after playing into mid-June, by far the longest run of his career, Binnington didn’t even resume skating until late July. Even then, he hit the ice for three private sessions with Chiodo before stealing away for a week of vacation, more concerned about recovering than rushing back. “It’s about knowing yourself, understanding what you need to feel better,” he says.
Once his workouts picked up in earnest, Binnington still kept a slow, deliberate pace. Maybe others would’ve overextended themselves while playing catch-up; after all, his NHL peers at Nichol’s gym, already training for months, were in peak shape by the time Binnington showed up. But that wasn’t the plan.
Instead, he began by fine-tuning his positional foundation: watching video, tracking passes, releasing from post to post, facing light shots from local junior hockey players … Chiodo likens the process to sanding a porch, rather than renovating an entire house.
“Less dynamic stuff, just getting his feet underneath him,” Chiodo says. “He had to embrace not being sharp right away. We expected to not feel great in August, but he had to push through.”
Perseverance has been a steady theme throughout Binnington’s rise. It’s how he survived unwelcome demotions, untimely benchings and a season of banishment from the Blues organization to finish second in Calder Trophy voting, fifth for the Vezina Trophy and 10th for the Hart Trophy last season. But for so long Binnington’s focus was simply locked on making the NHL, let alone sticking. Once those boxes were checked—and then some—“then it was like, what’s next?” he says. “It’s a weird feeling. I’m proud of where I’m at, but there’s still more.”
This sentiment was hammered home during an early video session with Chiodo. In addition to showing some clips of memorable moments from St. Louis’s run—key saves, big wins, postgame celebrations—to instill some feel-good vibes in Binnington, the coach displayed a list of legendary netminders from league history, such as Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour, accompanied by their career stats (games played, wins, save percentages, salaries) and accomplishments (Stanley Cups, Vezina trophies). The underlying message for Binnington, says Chiodo: “Raise the bar. Recognize how great he can be.”
Few will ever claim that Binnington lacks confidence in his abilities; the icy-cool quote that he gifted to the media last spring is only one of many examples. “You might have a read on him being cocky,” Nichol says. “But offline he’s so prepared.” In this regard, Nichol compares Binnington to another client, Maple Leafs legend Mats Sundin. “I could’ve just handed him a Gatorade whenever he asked and he still would’ve gone to the Hall of Fame,” Nichol says of Sundin, “but he’d schedule regular meetings to get my two cents.”
Likewise, Binnington has become increasingly involved with Chiodo and Nichol each offseason. “Our first summer [of training in 2017], I brought the books and the calendars,” Chiodo says, while Binnington listened. Last summer, by contrast, Binnington presented Chiodo and Nichol with specific areas of his game that he felt needed to improve, citing what he had seen on video and felt on the ice. “Specific feedback,” Nichol says. “Everyone [was] saying how amazing he was, but he’s talking about wanting to be faster [at] pushing off his post.”
This is a relatively new approach for Binnington, realized along with his sudden success. “There’s a reason that the elites are that great,” he says. “It comes from putting in work every day and continuing to grow. I’ve been seeing that over the last couple years, understanding what it takes.” Early into their time together, Chiodo asked Binnington to rank his satisfaction in several life areas—such as his house, his car and his nutrition—from one to five.
Back then, most of Binnington’s answers were twos. He responded much differently when they revisited the exercise last summer. “We’re in a better spot,” Binnington says. “But still more to build, right?”
• • •
Even as the Stanley Cup celebration continued raging in the Blues locker room at TD Garden on June 12, even as empty beer bottles and soggy pizza crusts littered the floor of the visiting bench below his feet, Binnington was reliving the last shot he’d faced that night in Game 7, a 4–1 Blues triumph. “I wanted to finish strong, but it was a bar-down goal,” he told SI then. “I feel like that’s surpassed by the fact that we won. So I think it’ll be a good first game next year.”
The clock had barely ticked past 1 a.m., but already Binnington was looking ahead. This too is a recurring theme. When he and Chiodo first linked up, they had set a modest goal for his career: Earn a one-way contract worth at least $1.5 million within the next year. Getting there took twice as long as expected; of course, that didn’t deter how he rejoiced once he did.
“Having something to strive for really helps push me,” he says today. “Winning the Cup, I threw a huge party. Finished my buddy’s [tattoo] sleeve … It’s hard to get to the top. It’s even harder to stay at the top, because everyone wants your job and is coming for you. A lesson that works for me is continuing to find my motivations.” For example, when Binnington earned his 50th NHL win with a 1–0 shutout of Arizona in February—only six goalies had reached the milestone faster than Binnington, who needed 77 games—he treated himself to a Rolex watch.
He continues to set little personal goals throughout the season, setting time aside to log them on a notepad (or the Notes app on his phone). “I like to reflect, see where I’m at, what I want to reach,” he says. “Take a breath, plan out your week, build off that. That’s what I do.” Some are performance-based: five wins, 10 wins … Others, he prefers to keep private until he gets there.
Drafted by the Blues in the third round of 2011, Binnington had received only 13 minutes of NHL action—one goal allowed, three saves—prior to 2018–19. Now he is a No. 1 goalie whose next appearance will mark his 51st for the Blues in 2019–20, more than he’s ever played in the regular season at any level. (“Wow, didn’t know that,” Binnington says when informed. “That’s cool.”)
Combined with his short summer, the increased workload has presented a new slate of challenges for Binnington. “Not a ton of experience, but he’s handled it extremely well,” backup Jake Allen says. “As a starting goalie, when you play 50 to 60 games, it’s about finding ways to reset yourself, check out of the hockey mindset. You need to have an escape. I think he’s found that good mix right now. It’s been impressive to watch. He’s mature beyond his years.”
A solid first half to the season was rewarded with an All-Star Game selection in front of a St. Louis crowd at Enterprise Center. Still, Binnington was ranked in the middle of the pack among starters with a .912 save percentage through Monday’s loss to the Panthers, as the Blues (41-19-10) held a slim lead over Colorado atop the Central Division. “Try to continue to learn as I go, and that’s important,” he says. “We put ourselves in a good spot as a team. I have the confidence in myself to keep working, and it’ll come around if it’s not going your way.”
Further to Allen’s advice, though, Binnington still takes care to budget time for himself in the home stretch of the regular season, before St. Louis’s title defense officially begins. For one thing, he reads. A lot. Nichol phoned in a favor and sent an autographed copy of Curtis Joseph’s autobiography, knowing that CuJo was one of Bennington’s netminding heros. Currently he is leafing through two texts—one about Jay-Z and the building of a hip-hop empire, the other called Relentless by Tim Grover, former trainer to Michael Jordan.
“It’s a very strong mindset book,” Binnington says. “I like to read a lot of biographies on why people are successful. It goes back to what I was saying, why the best are the best. I like to read peoples’ stories of how they got there.”
And why is that?
“I feel like I’m creating my own.”