The OHL is an older player’s league — especially between the pipes. But when opportunity arises for a draft-eligible netminder, you need to be ready to answer. In the case of Owen Sound Attack goalie Jordan Binnington, he didn’t burst through the window of opportunity offered by the injury to Scott Stajcer (NYR) — he staked his claim on the crease and a higher draft position.
Binnington, a 17-year-old goalie from Richmond Hill, ON, came into the season expecting to be the backup to Stajcer — considered one of the, if not the, top goaltenders in the league. A November hip injury put Stajcer on the shelf and Binnington was elevated from his backup role to "The Man" for the OHL Western Conference regular-season champion Attack. And three games into the 2011 playoffs, he’s backstopped his squad to a 2-2 series tie over the London Knights.
Binnington’s well aware of the benefit that playing well in the post-season can provide. "Playoffs are a big time. That’s when you can show that you’ll do whatever you can to win," he said prior to starting Game 4 of the series. "That’s what ends up meaning the most — your win count, so hopefully we’ll work towards that and have some success in the playoffs."
The 6’2, 160-pound goalie played in 46 of the Attack’s regular season games, compiling a 27-12-1-4 record with one shutout, a .899 save percentage and a 3.05 goals against average. Binnington admitted to some early season jitters, adding that he relied on those around him to help him through it.
"At the beginning of the year, I think I was just kind of nervous and everything was swimming in my head, with the scouts and all," Binnington said. "Last year really helped me out in terms of experience and then this year, about half-way through, I figured out how to handle it all. Once Scott went down, I think I handled it well and I talked to my connections, or whatever you want to call them, and I feel pretty good about my game right now and how the year has gone."
One of those connections is his father, to whom Binnington attributes much of his mental success.
"My dad actually helps me out a lot with that. He reads a lot and gives me things to read too, watching videos. I talk to him all the time before the game," Binnington said. "He and people like my agent, they tell me what to do and how not to get frustrated when I let a bad goal go in.
So is he a proponent of positive thinking? Visualization? "A bit of both," he added. "Pretty much just blocking it out. If a goal goes in you try to figure out a way to forget. You want to think a bit about what you could have done differently, but you just try to skate away and forget about it."
And Binnington’s fellow Attack teammates have helped to infuse him with the confidence he’s needed to succeed.
"I’m just getting nothing but confidence from the guys on the team," Binnington explained. "I mean, Scott has filled me with confidence. He wants me to do well and he wants me to succeed. Everyone’s just working together so the pressure really isn’t that bad."
Mark Reeds, the Attack’s head coach, said that his injured starter has had an incredible influence on his young netminder.
"Scott, obviously being a mentor to Jordan from day one, has been a tremendous influence on him," Reeds said. "Scott is very prepared; he understands the game. When you ask him about our system, he can almost verbatim repeat it. He’s one of the top players on the team and he’s been very good with Jordan. I think the relationship is very good and he’s been giving [Jordan] some tips."
Binnington’s competitive instincts have served him well during this run to the top of the Western Conference.
"He’s been very good. From day one, not really knowing the result or the status of Scott, he was put into a situation where he was going to get a chance to play," Reeds explained. "Jordan’s a real competitor and any setbacks that he’s experienced, he’s been able to come back with a good outing. For the most part, I think his record speaks for itself."
While some may say moving from back-up status to the starter role would be the biggest challenge, Reeds explained that it’s actually the role switch to the back-up that poses the biggest challenge.
"For any of these kids, when you draft them, they’ve always been the number one on their team, so it’s difficult for them to sit back and wait for their opportunity," Reeds added. "The biggest challenges that these players have is waiting, but continuing to do the work and do the work so that when your time arrives you’re prepared for it. He’s handled it very well.
"Even bringing in Michael Zador (TB), who has experience, that’s been another challenge for him. You kind of keep him on his toes and if he isn’t getting the job done, then there’s a player that we can turn to as well."
Binnington’s play has elevated him to the top of the OHL‘s goaltending prospects. He’s the second-ranked netminder by Central Scouting and seventh-overall in terms of domestic goalies.
"I’m very pleased with my ranking, but it really doesn’t mean much until it’s all said and done, though," he said. "Obviously it’s a bit of a momentum boost for me and a boost to my confidence, so I just want to build on that, keep doing what I’m doing, and see where I end up."
While the presence of scouts can pose a challenge, Binnington explained that for a goalie, draft rankings aren’t front of mind.
"Yeah, you are aware of the scouts, but you really try not to think about it and just focus on the game," Binnington explained. "You can’t worry about that stuff, especially as a goalie. Even if you go in the fourth or the fifth round, that’s a great result as a goalie. Just to get drafted is a great honor, so we’ll see how it works out."
Binnington said he’s long been a fan of Pittsburgh Penguins‘ netminder Marc-André Fleury ("I like his style and how he plays and battles,") however he refused to suggest a preference for which club he’ll be drafted by — even when told the "it’s just an honor" line is a cop-out.
"I’d have to say, truly, it’s just an honor to be drafted," he said, laughing. "I don’t really have a team that I’m looking forward to be taken by, or going for — I’m just happy to be taken by anyone."
However, growing up in Richmond Hill does mean he has some NHL roots. "Born in Toronto, so you’ve got to be a Toronto fan." And, like a true Leafs’ fan, optimism reigns supreme. "They’re starting to come around a bit."
Reeds said his goalie needs to work on his size as he prepares for the next level. "I think the biggest thing is his strength. I mean, he’s still just 17, he’s still growing, so the biggest thing is his strength and his consistency," he said.
Binnington wholeheartedly agrees. "Probably just getting stronger and bigger, and also mental-focus-wise, I can also work on that too," he explained. "I need to work on getting stronger and quicker."
And despite having a pair of netminders on the roster who have been selected by NHL squads, Binnington said he’s hoping to use the off-season to pick their brains about the draft experience.
"Here and there, I’ll ask the guys about what’s going on," he said. "But I think I’ll wait more until after the season and in the off-season I’ll turn to them so they can give me advice and fill me in on what happens."
Binnington hopes that time won’t come any time soon. After all, when it comes to drafting, nothing succeeds like success.
"Everyone likes someone who has won something," he said. "The team that I’m on, everyone gets along well and everything’s working out so far."