When the NHL expanded from six to twelve teams in 1967, it was imperative for the half-dozen new teams – if they wanted to be competitive, at least – to have solid goaltending. With a West Division housing each of the new teams – the Oakland Seals, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, and Pittsburgh Penguins – they were ultimately at the mercy of the “Original Six” in the East for the first few seasons.
Good goaltending could keep scores in-check and perhaps steal unexpected wins here and there for each team’s inaugural season.
Goaltender Leslie John Binkley
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Les Binkley was the team’s most important player during the first five seasons of the franchise. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
And so, the new teams tried to do just that – secure a cornerstone goaltender – when the 1967 NHL Expansion Draft took place. The Kings selected arguably hockey’s greatest goaltender, Terry Sawchuk, from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Blues grabbed another Hall of Famer in Glenn Hall. The Seals acquired a 6-time Stanley Cup champion in Charlie Hodge.
While a total of 12 goaltenders were chosen in the Expansion Draft, the Penguins made two marginal selections for the position in Joe Daley, whom they took from the Detroit Red Wings, and Roy Edwards from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Neither was a bad goalie per say, but were also not of the same caliber as Sawchuk, Hall, Hodge and some of the other netminders who were chosen. In fact, Edwards would be traded to Detroit on Sept. 7, 1967 in exchange for Hank Bassen, who would serve as the Penguins’ inaugural backup. Meanwhile, Daley would not appear in the Pittsburgh net until the 1968-69 season.
Nevertheless, the Penguins would in fact acquire their cornerstone, who would serve the franchise well for its first five straight seasons. Shortly before the 1967-68 season got underway, Pittsburgh acquired a 33-year-old rookie goalie from the old Western Hockey League’s (WHL) San Diego Gulls in exchange for cash.
His name was Les Binkley, and he would go on to have a one for the ages season as an original Pittsburgh Penguin and the team’s earliest hero.
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Toiling in the Minors for Many Years
Binkley was born Jun. 6, 1934 in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. He had played 12 seasons of minor professional hockey across North America before he ever stepped foot into the NHL. This first portion of Binkley’s career saw him play in five different leagues and suit up for 10 different teams.
Les Binkley won the AHL’s Calder Cup championship with the Cleveland Barons in 1963-64 (THW Archives).
His finest minor league successes came during the parts of seven seasons that he played for the Cleveland Barons in the American Hockey League (AHL). Binkley won the league’s Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as the Rookie of the Year for 1961-62 after playing 60 games, while posting a 3.02 goals-against average and helping the Barons to go 39-28-3.
He would follow that up with two AHL Second Team All-Star selections in both 1964 and 1966, and won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award in 1966 for allowing the least amount of goals during the season. From 1961-62 through 1965-66, Binkley played seasons of 60, 63, 65, 40, and 66 games respectively.
Additionally, he backstopped the Barons to the 1963-64 Calder Cup championship – the most major trophy that Binkley would win in his professional career, at least as a player. He followed that up with an additional Calder Cup Final appearance in 1965-66, though the Barons would fall short to the Rochester Americans.
Keep in mind too that all of these accomplishments by Binkley in his minor league career were done while he played without a goaltender mask.
Throughout his career – both in the minors and in the NHL – he had somewhat of a unique look. A crew cut hairstyle, Binkley was taller that some of his contemporaries at 6-foot, and while not overweight by any means, still looked a bit paunchy. Off the ice he may have looked more like a grocer or barkeeper. Instead, he would become the first star goalie in Penguins history.
Success in Pittsburgh and the Team’s Composition
The first-year Penguins would finish second from the bottom in the West Division with a record of 27-34-13. However, they were only two points back of the North Stars (27-32-15) and barely missed out on the final playoff spot.
What is most critical to our discussion is that of Pittsburgh’s 27 victories, 20 of them belonged to Binkley. Likewise, 10 of the 13 ties were his as well. The 54 games that Binkley suited up out of the Penguins’ 74 total were the fullest NHL work of his career. Each of his games that first season were played maskless as well.
When compared with his goaltender counterparts from throughout the league, Binkley did quite well. Here is a quick synopsis of how his numbers looked league-wide that first season:
54 games played (third most in NHL).
10 ties (tied for third most)
150 goals allowed (third best)
1,585 shots against (third most)
1,435 saves (third best)
Six shutouts (tied for second best)
While Binkley may have been the Penguins most important player their first season, he was not their only key contributor. They were a very seasoned team too. Of the 25 players to have appeared in at least one game during the first season, 17 of them were 29 years old or older.
35-year-old eventual Hockey Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate led the Penguins in scoring with 20 goals and 39 assists in 74 games. Ab McDonald was the team’s top goal scorer with 22 tallies. Noel Price was the top scorer among Penguins defensemen with six goals and 27 assists across 70 games. Nine different Penguins reached double digits in goals.