Signing Scott Darling was supposed to correct the issues that had plagued the Carolina Hurricanes.
Heading into the off-season ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, goaltending had continued to hold the Hurricanes back. A strong possession team under then-coach Bill Peters, one that seemingly had all the makings of a wild-card contender, at the very least, had been encumbered again by less than satisfactory play in the blue paint. Cam Ward had, for the third consecutive season, watched his save percentage slip, this time to an unsettlingly low .905, the fourth-worst mark among any netminder to appear in 41 games. Carolina’s backup cohort composed of Eddie Lack, Michael Leighton and Alex Nedeljkovic did little to stop the bleeding, either, combining for a .900 SP.
So, that’s why then-Hurricanes GM Ron Francis made what was considered a splash.
Across three seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, the majority of which Darling spent as a second-stringer, he had risen to prominence, in part due to some season-saving playoff heroics. And with unrestricted free agency on the horizon, Darling was expected to be one of the hottest puck-stopping commodities, believed by some to be a potential No. 1 netminder given his solid .923 SP, 2.37 goals-against average and four shutouts in 75 games with the Blackhawks.
However, instead of letting him walk for nothing, and instead of attempting to fight off other suitors in free agency, Chicago and Carolina struck a deal. On April 28, only days after the Blackhawks had been eliminated from the post-season, Darling was shipped to the Hurricanes for a third-round draft pick. One week later, he signed a four-year, $16.6-million pact that all but announced him as Carolina’s new starting goaltender. There was some skepticism. The contract was seen as one that possessed a high level of risk. But there was potential, to be sure, of high reward, not to mention hope that Darling could be the answer for which the Hurricanes had long been searching.
It turns out he wasn’t.
On Thursday, the Hurricanes announced that Darling, who has played all of 50 games for the franchise since putting pen to paper on his four-year deal, has been placed on waivers. The move comes as the result of the veritable logjam in the Carolina crease, the overcrowding a result of off-season signee Petr Mrazek’s return from injury and the play of waiver-claim Curtis McElhinney, who has been far and away the best keeper to pull on a Hurricanes jersey this season. Darling’s own shortcomings — an unfortunate .892 SP and unwieldy 3.14 GAA — made him a prime candidate for demotion, particularly given his sizeable contract.
It’s hard to fathom how things have gone quite so wrong for Darling, who was one of the league’s best stories. The 29-year-old rose from the obscurity of the lower minor leagues while battling alcoholism to win a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, his hometown team, before signing his four-year deal and becoming a starter with the Hurricanes. But throughout his time in Carolina, Darling simply hasn’t been able to piece his game together. He has an .889 SP, 3.17 GAA and not one shutout to his name since becoming a Hurricane.
What makes Darling’s play most difficult to understand is that, from a pure numbers perspective, there are few situations that could have been more conducive to success than the one he had with the Hurricanes. Comparing his 75 games in Chicago to his 50 games in Carolina, Darling’s workload with the Hurricanes was less almost across the board than it was with the Blackhawks. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Darling faced 2.1 fewer shot attempts, 1.1 fewer shots, 0.1 fewer high-danger chances. The difference in expected SP, a measure based on shot quality, is almost negligible — four-thousandths of a point — as is the single metric in which Carolina proved to be a less favorable goaltending environment than Chicago: Darling faced an additional tenth of a scoring chance per 60 minutes while with the Hurricanes.
When compared to the rest of the league, too, Darling’s situation in Carolina seemed like a prime opportunity for a first-time starter. Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, 58 goaltenders have played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5. Of those netminders, Darling has faced the third-fewest shots against per 60 minutes and he’s in the middle of the pack when it comes to high-danger shots against.
There’s little use looking back now, though, and Darling’s sights have to be set on his future. And what happens next? Well, it would seem unlikely that any team that hasn’t already traded for Darling will be all that willing to claim him on waivers, as they would then be on the hook for his $4.15-million annual cap hit. That leaves open two options in the immediate.
One would see an interested party could flip a low-level asset or two to the Hurricanes for the netminder. The caveat would be that Carolina is then asked to retain salary. And there may be some teams that flirt with the idea. The Philadelphia Flyers, for instance, are in desperate need of another netminder, and maybe a change of scenery can spark something in Darling that sees him recapture his spark from Chicago. Likewise, the Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues have had little luck in the crease and thus could be teams with varying degrees of interest in Darling.
But the other — and possibly more likely — scenario would see Darling simply end up with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, where he’ll look to get his game back on track and maybe, hopefully, earn a call back up to the big club at some point this season. And where Darling goes from there is anyone’s guess, but if he remains in the AHL for the remainder of the campaign, it might not be long before the one-time hope of the Carolina crease becomes one of the off-season’s prime buyout candidates.