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Hurricanes’ acquisition of Darling has potential, but questions still remain in goal

Scott Darling was set to be a sought after free agent, but he’s not yet proven as a starting netminder. Plus, Carolina’s acquisition means one of their three NHL-calibre goaltenders has to go.

Hurricanes GM Ron Francis’ to-do list this off-season wasn’t all that long. Facing another early summer after an eighth-straight playoff-less campaign, the Hurricanes needed to make a decision as to who to protect and expose in the expansion draft, look at their options for bringing in a scoring threats up front via free agency and take care of contracts, and possible extensions, for Teuvo Teravainen, Brock McGinn, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and a few others.

But atop Francis’ list in big, bold, sky-writing-sized letters was a task as important to the Hurricanes finally righting the ship as any: find a starting goaltender. And on Friday, Francis did his best to address that glaring need, making what has seemingly become an annual off-season swap with the Chicago Blackhawks, shipping a third-round pick to the Windy City in exchange for free agent-to-be netminder Scott Darling.

The need to bring aboard a netminder, Darling or otherwise, was evident in the fact that Carolina has been sunk in each of their past few seasons by poor goaltending, which is to say that if the Hurricanes had a league-average goaltending we might be talking about a team that has made the playoffs in recent memory. Carolina had previously attempted to address the issue ahead of the 2015-16 season, making a swap for then-Vancouver Canucks backup Eddie Lack, giving the Hurricanes a second netminder to rely on beyond veteran Cam Ward. The acquisition hasn’t quite gone how Francis had hoped, though.

Over the past two seasons, the only team that has received worse goaltending at 5-on-5 than the Hurricanes is the Calgary Flames, but Carolina’s .915 SP is indicative of just how bad things have been between the pipes. And while Calgary’s had a rotating cast of goaltenders — a cast which was let walk, wholesale, at the end of 2015-16 — Carolina has relied on the Lack-Ward tandem for a two full years. 

Last season, Ward turned in a .918 SP at 5-on-5, 31st among the 36 goalies to play at least 1,500 minutes, while Lack managed a .910 SP, good for 35th among those same netminders. The hope, however, was a stronger Hurricanes team this season would help improve the numbers for both netminders. That wasn’t quite the case. In fact, no goaltender with at least 1,500 minutes in goal posted a worse 5-on-5 SP than Ward’s .912 mark. And though Lack did improve, posting a .923 SP in nearly 850 minutes at 5-on-5, the best games of his season came after he was called out publicly by coach Bill Peters.

But with both netminders underperforming and Darling now in town, there are two questions that face the Hurricanes. The first, and most important as far as on-ice success goes, is whether or not Darling can carry the load and perform like an average or better starting netminder. Secondly, there will be debate about which netminder should go to make room for Darling in a now-crowded crease. The latter is easier to answer.

Because the Hurricanes are the antithesis of a team up against the salary cap, money doesn’t factor all that much into making this decision, and it’s not as if Ward’s $3.3 million cap hit is all that much more than the $2.75 million hit Lack boasts. And when it comes to moving one of the netminders out, it’s going to be infinitely easier to move Lack along than it is Ward for reasons that go beyond money. Lack has had some ugly seasons in Carolina, to be sure, but he’s at least shown the ability to be a steady enough backup netminder and his late improvement this past season is nothing if not promising for a more consistent campaign in 2017-18. Beyond that, the Hurricanes’ options are wide open with Lack. He can be dealt anywhere without Francis having to so much check if it’s all right with the netminder. That’s not the case with Ward, who has the ability to veto a trade to half the league’s clubs thanks to a no-trade clause.

There’s also a matter of loyalty and experience. The Hurricanes have stuck with Ward, who backstopped the franchise to a Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2005-06, through thick and thin, even re-signing the netminder ahead of 2016-17 despite the fact Carolina very easily could have let him walk in free agency. Ward also offers the Hurricanes a goaltender who can assist Darling, who will presumably get a chance at the No. 1 job, as the younger netminder gets settled into his first season with a new franchise. At the very least, Ward can offer veteran advice.

And that brings us to Darling, who was set to become a sought after piece in free agency. 

The reasons for the intrigue surrounding Darling are clear, of course. Not only was he coming from a successful program in Chicago, but Darling had done enough to save the Blackhawks’ bacon in the past that he’s seen as a netminder ready for the next step in his progression. His base and underlying numbers support that, as well. Across 75 games over the past three seasons in Chicago, Darling has turned in a 39-17-9 record, .923 SP and 2.37 goals-against average. Advanced stats support Darling as a solid goaltender, too, as he’s posted a .932 SP at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons. That’s the fourth-best mark of any goaltender who has seen at least 3,000 minutes of action at five-a-side since the start of 2014-15. Given the strength of his numbers, it’s not hard to picture Darling having success with the Hurricanes.

Darling’s about to enter a whole new world, though, and the trade for and what will likely be the eventual signing of the 28-year-old keeper doesn’t mean he’s a sure thing. Take Lack, for instance. Before coming over to Carolina, he was considered a potential starter for the Canucks, managing to split starts with Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller, both of whom would have been full-time starters with several other clubs. Lack had posted a .922 SP in roughly 3,700 minutes at 5-on-5. Since joining the Hurricanes, though, he’s down to a .914 SP in less than 2,400 minutes. Things can change in a hurry with a change of scenery.

And while Darling’s 3,000 minutes over three seasons in the Blackhawks’ crease is nothing to shake a stick at, he could realistically see upwards of 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5 in the upcoming season alone. That would be far and away the heaviest NHL workload of his career, and he’s not going to get the sometimes-easier starts that backups tend to get. He’ll face top competition regularly in Carolina. That’s not to mention he’s going to be working behind a defense that doesn’t have quite the same quality — at least not yet — as Chicago’s. Nothing against Hanifin, Slavin or Justin Faulk, but that trio isn’t as proven as Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook.

Regardless, the deal with the Blackhawks was a chance for the Hurricanes to land the top netminder, or at least capable starter, that they were looking for and an opportunity for Darling, someone who has worked hard throughout a remarkably nomadic career, to show that he has what it takes to become a starting netminder in the NHL. But there has to be at least some concern this turns into another Lack-esque situation — one where a backup with starting potential simply falls flat. Sadly, only time can tell if that will be the case.

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