Ask anyone what had plagued the Hurricanes over the past few seasons and you’d be met with one answer: goaltending. And be it Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, Michael Leighton or Anton Khudobin, it seemed no one was the answer to Carolina’s goaltending woes. That’s why the Hurricanes’ move this off-season to acquire Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks and promptly sign him to a four-year, $16.6-million contract to be their No. 1 goaltender was widely applauded.
Though never a starter prior to landing in Carolina, Darling had done tremendous work in the Blackhawks’ crease over the past three seasons. Whether it was spelling an injured Corey Crawford or taking the reins when Chicago’s backs were against the wall in the post-season, Darling had answered the bell and produced the numbers to back it up. Out of 59 goaltenders to start at least 50 games over the past three seasons, he had posted a .922 save percentage, tied with Crawford for the sixth-best mark, and his .932 5-on-5 SP – the eighth-best mark among the 59 goaltenders with 2,500 minutes or more – was further proof of how solid he had been. Bringing a goaltender of that caliber to town, it was believed, would put Carolina firmly into the playoff picture.
It’s true, too, that that would be the case. A goaltender playing that well, with SP numbers among the top 10 in the league, would almost certainly have the Hurricanes competing for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. But the reality is that Darling has unfortunately disappointed through the first quarter season of his four-year deal. In fact, when measured against his starting-netminder counterparts, Darling has been the exact opposite of what Carolina had been expecting.
At the one-quarter mark of the campaign, Darling is one of 33 goaltenders to start at least 10 games, and while he’s sporting an above .500 points percentage — he’s 6-5-4 — Carolina has won almost in spite of Darling’s play on some nights. His SP, among the best across the past three campaigns, has fallen dramatically to .900 after 15 games. His goals-against average is 2.69, somewhere in the middle of the pack. And at 5-on-5, he’s managed a .910 SP, meaning his once sparkling numbers aren’t really all that much better than that of Vegas Golden Knights fourth-stringer-turned-replacement-starter Maxime Lagace, who is sporting a .882 mark through 11 games.
The most concerning thing about Darling’s play, however, is that it’s not as though the team in front of him has really been a problem. Truthfully, it’s hard to find a much better bunch defensively. Compared to those 27 other goaltenders with at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Darling has faced the second-fewest shot attempts, fifth-fewest shots, fifth-fewest low-danger shots, eighth-fewest mid-range shots and is middle of the pack, 15th, in facing high-danger shots. He’s been insulated well. Yet, here we are, with Darling sporting only modest numbers and, quite frankly, piecing together a worse season than Ward, who he was brought in to replace.
Darling isn’t the only netminder who isn’t living up to expectations this season, as there are a handful of masked men who would love to put the first quarter of this current campaign behind them.
BEN BISHOP, DALLAS STARS
In a lot of ways, the stories of Bishop and Darling are interchangeable this season. The Stars brought Bishop aboard in hopes he could bring some stability to a crease that had long been a problem area. Like Darling, Bishop was also traded for and immediately signed to a long-term extension. And, like Darling, Bishop has yet to play like a top-tier goaltender.
Bishop’s numbers have been better than Darling’s at all strengths, but the 5-on-5 statistics don’t go in the Stars netminder’s favor. He has a .909 mark at five-a-side despite the fact that he, like Darling, is getting defensive support from a Dallas group that has bought into playing a more sound game in their own zone. Matter of fact, Bishop is facing fewer high-danger and low-danger shots than Darling. But what’s posing the biggest problem is that Bishop has had the worst SP, .949, of any starting netminder when it comes to turning aside those low-danger attempts.
The Stars have potential to make noise in the Western Conference, but doing so is going to hinge on Bishop turning things around.
TUUKKA RASK, BOSTON BRUINS
The Bruins have to be wondering what has happened to Rask’s game since his Vezina Trophy win in 2013-14. In each successive season since that campaign, one in which he turned in a .930 SP and a league-leading seven shutouts, Rask’s numbers have dipped. First it was to a .922 SP, then back-to-back seasons with a .915 SP and now to an unsightly .897 SP. It’s the second-worst mark of any netminder to start a dozen games this season. Simply put, that’s not good enough.
Rask doesn’t really have a great excuse, either, because it’s not as if he’s being bombarded with shots on a nightly basis. The Bruins have managed to stifle the opposition, allowing Rask to see the fewest shot attempts and third-fewest shots on goal of the netminders with at least 500 5-on-5 minutes. Rask has had an issue similar to Bishop’s, though, in that he’s been picked apart by the mid-range attempts that Boston has allowed. He’s sporting a mere .855 SP on those shots.
This isn’t the kind of trend the Bruins want to be seeing with Rask, especially given he has another three years and $21 million remaining on his contract after this season. He’s been relegated to backup duty for three straight games and Boston has to be hoping that shakes him out of his slump.
CRAIG ANDERSON, OTTAWA SENATORS
Anderson was nothing short of spectacular last season, and, when the campaign concluded, there was no better 5-on-5 goaltender in the league. Across 40 games and nearly 2,000 minutes at five-a-side, Anderson posted a remarkable .940 SP, better than Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and proceeded to lead the Senators to the Eastern Conference final in the post-season. But that was then, this is now, and that version of Anderson seems to have disappeared because he’s been nowhere near that good through the first quarter of 2017-18.
The difference really is quite notable, too. Last season, Anderson managed a .926 SP at all strengths across his 40 regular season appearances, but he’s dropped off all the way to .896 through 16 games this season. The drop has been just as significant at evens, too, as Anderson is sporting a .901 SP at 5-on-5 and he’s been brutal at bailing out the Senators when they have the odd defensive breakdown.
One of the most telling numbers when it comes to Anderson’s poor start, though, is his actual SP versus expected SP. Given the quality of shots and shooters, Anderson’s expected SP is .926, the seventh-highest among those 500-minute starters. His actual mark is .025 lower. Only Lagace has fared worse.
CAREY PRICE, MONTREAL CANADIENS
Usually, when nothing is going right for the Canadiens, the one thing they can rely on is Price. This season, though, with the offense struggling and the defense in shambles, Price hasn’t been able to do much, if anything, to help Montreal right the ship.
Yes, we know, he’s been sidelined for some time at this point — he last suited up on Nov. 2 — but heading into that game, Price was already looking like he was headed towards the most disastrous campaign of his career. Previously, Price’s worst season came when he posted .905 SPs in the 2008-09 and 2012-13 campaigns, but Montreal would almost have been thankful if their No. 1 netminder could've gotten back to that kind of form before he fell injured as Price was sporting a .877 SP and bloated 3.77 goals-against average in the 11 games he had played.
As he’s only played 458 minutes at 5-on-5, Price doesn’t quite fall into the same category as the other 28 listed netminders. Comparing him to the group doesn’t do him many favors, though. His .881 SP is the worst of the group, the difference between his actual and expected SPs is the worst of all — even worse than Lagace — and he’s got the worst and fifth-worst SP marks against mid- and high-danger shots of the 29 goaltenders.
A lot has gone wrong in Montreal this season, but nothing has been quite as head-scratching as Price’s play.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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