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The Hurricanes’ goaltending woes aren’t Darling’s problem alone

Scott Darling had an awful 2017-18 campaign, but there were more to Carolina’s struggles then the backup-turned-starter failing to live up to expectations in his first go-round as a No. 1.

In his first attempt at taking the reins as a starting netminder in the NHL, Scott Darling wasn’t all that great, all that good or even all that average. Matter of fact, there’s probably not a single positive light that can be shone on Darling’s campaign, one that saw him acquired and signed by the Carolina Hurricanes in the off-season and given the keys to the No. 1 job only to cede his first shot at being a full-time starter on account of his own poor play.

And Darling’s disappointing season didn’t come without its consequences. Signed to the aforementioned deal last summer, a four-year, $16.6-million pact, there were rumblings that the Hurricanes’ front office were already having some deep discussions about getting out of the contract. The most talked about option was a move that saw Darling shipped out and shuffled off to a new town that could take on the money. The worst-case scenario was a buyout that would have freed up salary space and gotten Darling off the books entirely.

Either would have seemed a knee-jerk reaction, of course, but who would have really blamed the Hurricanes if they cut bait? Acquired to finally expel the demons that seem to have been haunting the Carolina crease for the better part of the past several seasons, Darling’s numbers were abhorrent. Among netminders to appear at least 41 times last season, his .888 save percentage was the league’s worst and his 3.18 goals-against average would have made most backups blush. If that isn’t enough, Darling had only 14 quality starts in 40 attempts. Without getting into too much detail, that’s to say that Darling was only better than a league-average keeper 14 times he took the crease last season, this despite having the 23rd-highest salary of the 148 goaltenders under contract in 2017-18.

The talk of moving Darling along, however, has all but subsided. The whispers have quieted, the first buyout window has closed and the 29-year-old goaltender is being supported by Carolina in his pursuit of turning an abysmal season into another turning point in his still-somewhat-young career. In a fantastic piece by The News & Observer’s Luke DeCock, it was outlined how Darling is laser-focused on his off-season training, putting in far more work than he did ahead of the past campaign and targeting the upcoming season as an opportunity to prove the Hurricanes’ faith in his abilities wasn’t misguided.

Primarily, it’s easy to have faith in Darling’s ability to turn things around in the Carolina crease because, quite frankly, his numbers can’t realistically get much worse. His performance last season was so poor that anything less would all but certainly result in him ending up in the AHL and potentially out of the league by next summer. But Darling’s history, albeit brief, gives no reason to believe last season was anything more than an aberration.

Statistically speaking, sure, Darling hadn’t seen starter duty prior to last season, but it should be noted that the difference between last season’s workload and the one he faced the year prior to taking the reins in Carolina was a mere 11 outings. It’s not as though he went from a 15-game goaltender to a 65-game starter overnight. And Darling’s numbers back during his days with the Chicago Blackhawks, back when he was skating in roughly 30 games per season, were rock solid. Across the regular season and playoffs in 2015-16, Darling posted a .915 SP and 2.53 GAA. He followed that up with a .924 SP and 2.38 GAA in 2016-17. And across the entirety of his 80-game stay in Chicago, Darling posted a .924 SP and 2.36 GAA. That should be a big enough workload to get a read on Darling’s ability, and the read there definitely isn’t below-replacement-level backup.

So, what gives? Well, there could be any number of factors. Maybe last season’s performance was a psychological battle, which is to say there’s a chance the pressure of the starting role got to Darling. Maybe it was physical and the lack of a proper off-season regimen resulted in Darling slipping. But the only conclusion we can draw for sure is that despite Carolina having a stellar defense corps on paper and the Hurricanes boasting favorable underlying numbers under now former-coach Bill Peters, Darling saw more rubber than he had in any year prior and was put under more pressure to make tough saves than he had been prior.

According to NaturalStatTrick, Darling faced 40.5 unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past season, an increase of about half a shot more than any season with the Blackhawks. So, while his overall attempts against and shots against averages were lower than or in the same range as what he had faced prior, he was more active when we take into account more pucks getting through or missing the traffic in front. And while Darling’s scoring chances against and high-danger chances against numbers are similarly in the same range as they had been prior, one interesting wrinkle in his underlying statistics comes via Corisca.

While Darling’s overall rate of shots against was lower and among the lowest in the league, his work most often came from the higher quality areas. He had the second-lowest rate of his total shots against at 5-on-5 come from low-danger areas and the highest rate come from high-danger areas. This is to say when he was busy, it was often from in tight, which isn’t a recipe for success. Overall, among goaltenders to play 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5, he ranked last in low-danger shots against but 16th from the medium-danger area and ninth from high-danger range. It’s in those latter two areas Darling got picked apart, too, with the third- and sixth-worst SP marks at five-a-side.

There’s also something to be said of the penalty kill, as well. Darling was one of 52 goaltenders to see at least 100 minutes shorthanded, but he had the third-lowest expected SP in large part due to the areas from he faced shots against. Only 18 goaltenders had penalty killers perform more poorly in front of them in terms of forcing the bulk of shots to come from low-danger areas, which resulted in Darling facing 90.1 of all shorthanded shots against from either medium- or high-danger positions. That’s to say that when the Hurricanes’ kill broke down, it was picked apart, leaving Darling scrambling to stop pucks from tough areas. That he wasn’t successful is painfully obvious.

While Darling undoubtedly needs to be better given last season’s unsightly numbers, the onus also falls on new Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour to find a way to make life somewhat easier on the Hurricanes keeper(s). Darling performed poorly, no doubt, but he had a .907 expected SP across all situations. That was the fifth-lowest expected SP in the NHL last season and significantly lower than his .914 expected SP at all situations throughout his time in Chicago. And this is all to say that Darling can be the goaltender who gets the Hurricanes back to the post-season for the first time in 10 seasons. In order to do so, though, he’s going to need some extra insulation.

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