ST. LOUIS -- A few weeks before St. Louis Blues training camp, in what's become an annual tradition, Jordan Binnington sat down for lunch with his junior goalie coach Greg Redquest. Since "goaltender" and "superstitious" are synonymous in hockey, they went to the same chicken wing restaurant and sat in the same booth as they did a year ago.
Everything felt the same. But everything wasn't the same.
A year ago, Binnington was an AHL goalie buried on the Blues' depth chart, yearning for a chance to prove himself. That was before he got the call-up to St. Louis, and the 24-5-1 regular-season run that made him a finalist for NHL rookie of the year. That was before he hoisted the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and before he took it back home to Richmond Hill, Ontario, where a parade was held in his honor and the mayor presented him with a key to the city in which he grew up.
That was before Jordan Binnington couldn't sit in a chicken wing restaurant without causing a scene.
"It was 2 p.m. in the afternoon and someone noticed him," Redquest recalled. "We didn't get out of there for two and a half hours. In a wing place that no one's ever in at that time of day. Autographs. Pictures."
But Redquest said superstition mandated that they eat at that restaurant, and repeat last year's meal -- right down to the check.
"We couldn't break protocol. Had to do the same thing. Which sucks, because I had to buy [lunch]. He's a rich kid now!" Redquest said, laughing.
Binnington, 26, signed a two-year contract worth $8.8 million after last season, after earning $650,000 while backstopping the Blues to the Stanley Cup. It was an interesting calculation on both sides of the bargaining table; it's hard to find comparable deals for a rookie goalie who dominates for 32 regular-season games and then wins 16 more in the playoffs. But Binnington likes how the math turned out.
"I think it's a fair deal for now. I'm going to continue to work and put myself in the best position come contract time," he said.
When Redquest saw the contract, he knew immediately why the money and the term were right for Binnington.
"I thought it was a great deal for both sides. If he proves himself even more, then he'll earn more," he said. "And that's Binner. [He'd say] 'I want the challenge. Challenge me, boys. I dare ya.'"
Blues GM Doug Armstrong said the best thing about negotiating Binnington's contract was that his agent, Mike Liut, was an NHL goalie for 663 games with the Blues, Whalers and Capitals.
"He knows the position and understands the nuance of the position. And Mike would inform me of things. In hockey, you think you know what's going on, but the goaltenders have their own little psyche. He walked me through some things that I wouldn't have known on my own," Armstrong told ESPN. "Mike understood that it was a great five months, but that we've seen a great five months in the past. Still, he said we have to reward him for the five months. And I believed that also."
Handing a goaltender a long-term contract for Stanley Cup success has happened before; see Jonathan Quick's 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings. Armstrong was disinclined to go there with Binnington.
"A one- or two-year deal was going to either create more questions, or eliminate all questions. And then we would know. We can make our long-term decisions," he said. "[His agent] understood our reluctance on going long term, based on that amount of work. But Mike also understood how appreciative we were and [that] we were willing to commit a few years to find out about him. To make sure he was paid for that. He brought us a championship. Maybe not single-handedly, but he was a big part of it."
This is where a general manager has to play amateur psychologist at times. The last thing that Armstrong wanted was for a contract to be a distraction for Binnington, or for his salary to be at a level that wasn't comfortable for him among other multimillionaires on the team.
"We put him in a spot where he doesn't have to think for two years. He can walk into the locker room knowing that his salary structure isn't one where he has to be embarrassed by it. And if he takes that next step, there's another tier or two that goalies get paid at. And I think he can get there," he said.
"He went 25-4 and won 16 playoff games. If he performs at that rate for his career, we're talking about a Hall of Famer that has multiple Stanley Cups. Now, is it realistic to think that someone can play at the level for that long? So we wanted to pay him fairly for a couple of years. I don't think it's about keeping him hungry, but about having him continue to prove [it]."
Binnington knows that even after the Stanley Cup win, there are doubters. Was it a fluke? Was it a flash in the pan? Are we really witnessing the dawn of a franchise goalie's career?
"It's different," he said of his status entering his first full NHL season. "But I like different things. Learning how to adapt. New opportunities. It's the same game, though, right? Work hard, compete, give your team a chance to win every night."
A tour of the Blues locker room before the season found much the same sentiment about the team: Yes, being a defending champion changes some things. But not the game. The game's the same.
"Everybody's back to zero," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "That year was a fun year, but in order for us to do the same thing, we've gotta hit the reset button. Remember the things that got us there, what it took to win. It's not easy. It's not by fluke getting there. The hard part is that everybody will be coming and giving us their best game. They're coming to beat us."
This is where Binnington's most notable attribute as a goalie will be perhaps his greatest advantage.
"He's so mentally tough. You can't rattle him. He's prepared for everything. He's got a plan and he's sticking to it," said Redquest, who first met Binnington when the goalie was a 16-year-old playing with the OHL's Owen Sound Attack.
Binnington has started strongly, no doubt: 2-1-1 on the season, with a .910 save percentage and a 2.97 goals-against average. There will be peaks and valleys for him and his team. But he has shown that he has an unflappable comportment. That was the case during his time in the American Hockey League, when it seemed like the Blues' crease would never open up for him. That was the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, when he lost two consecutive games just twice in four rounds, and won three of four games on the road in Boston in the finals.
"Jordan was the one guy who believed in himself, and he's just adding people to that ship of Jordan Binnington believers," Armstrong said.
Before this season, there was both mental and physical preparation for Binnington, and not a lot of time for it after the Blues went seven games in the finals and his offseason extended to the NHL Awards as well.
"You have to adapt. This year it was a shorter schedule. But I had to pace myself. You don't want to overdo it. I tried to take care of my body after that long playoff season," he said.
What Redquest has observed at the start of the season are some tweaks to Binnington's game.
"Holy s---, he's more powerful and better balanced than he was last year. He's making tough saves look easy," he said. "His game is also calmer than it was last year. Less movement. Big saves and less moment. I can get up faster than he does, and I have one bad hip. But that's because he's conserving energy."
Then there's what Redquest calls Binnington's "computer mind" when he's on his game. "He knows what his save is, and what his next save is going to be, wherever that next shot is coming from," he said.
For Binnington, those adjustments were part of his desire to always pursue greatness on a professional and personal level. "Just keep growing. As a person, as a goaltender, as an athlete. I hate losing. I just try to put myself in a position to constantly win," he said.
All of this adds up to Binnington being a different, perhaps better goalie than he was as a Calder Trophy finalist. What hasn't changed is his confident swagger -- please recall the "Do I look nervous?" moment that defined him last season -- that cuts through the usually stoic way he interacts with the media.
Binnington doesn't always show every facet of his personality when the cameras and microphones are on. There's a charisma that comes pouring out in certain situations, but not in every public appearance. It was on display at the Blues' Stanley Cup celebration. It was also there back in Richmond Hill, as Binnington interacted with old friends and old teammates.
"It's special, right? They're a part of your journey. A part of your memories. And I definitely have some memories playing with them," he said.
Then there was the trip to see his grandfather on the morning of his day with the Cup. Binnington held the chalice, tilting it slightly so his grandpa -- decked out in Blues championship gear -- could sip beer out of the bowl with a straw.
"Paper straw. Environment friendly," Binnington quipped.
Grandpa wasn't drinking from the Stanley Cup last summer. Jordan Binnington wasn't a defending champion, nor an NHL starter.
In a sense, everything has changed for him. But to those who know him best, very little has changed about Jordan Binnington.
"He told me he's on the A-list now," Redquest said. "I said no, you're just Binner to me."