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Hurricanes should explore goalie trade market with Darling failing

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You can throw stats out there to explain how Scott Darling has been a disappointment for the Carolina Hurricanes.

The hulking goalie sports an atrocious .892 save percentage and a mediocre 9-13-6 record so far as the Hurricanes’ starter, with Cam Ward shining by comparison (yet still not good enough). There are lowlights aplenty.

The Raleigh News & Observer’s Luke DeCock provides a harsh one-liner that really sells the letdown, though: “He’s not even Eddie Lack.”

Ouch.

Looking deeper at the numbers, it’s tough to let Darling off the hook.

The Hurricanes aren’t really allowing a problematic number of high-danger chances, and they continue to hog the puck in the ways that made people so excited about them in the first place (first in Corsi For percentage, via Natural Stat Trick).

DeCock asks a fair question: will GM and team legend Ron Francis get another shot to identify a better goalie after whiffing once again?

In the case of Lack, it was at least not a ruinous contract. Darling’s $4.15 million cap hit runs through the 2020-21 season, so of course Bill Peters and others are doing what they can to throw their support around the big netminder.

But maybe DeCock and others are onto something when it comes to the 2017-18 season.

Proactive approach might be best

Cam Ward’s latest ill-advised contract ($3.3M cap hit) dissolves after this campaign. With that in mind, the Hurricanes will either promote a goalie from their system or search the free agent market for a backup.

Instead of waiting for that latter option, what if the Hurricanes traded for someone who might be able to help them now?

One can apply similar thoughts to the Chicago Blackhawks living without Corey Crawford.

The Hurricanes could aim for someone with some skins on the wall as at least partial starters, if they think they can rejuvenate Jaroslav Halak or Petr Mrazek. If they’d rather aim for potential, there are interesting backups hoping to climb in Aaron Dell and Philipp Grubauer.

There’s a chance that Darling might eventually turn his career around. The Hurricanes would be foolish to just assume that such a rebound will happen, though. They might need to cut their losses and make Darling an overpaid backup at some point, as fans must already be getting impatient with this “if only we had a solid goalie” song and dance.

Soul searching

Finding a solution might mean asking some tough questions.

Are there systemic issues here? Do the Hurricanes need to hire a different goalie coach, or add to their staff? What went wrong in evaluating Darling?

Looking at Darling’s career on hockeydb, it’s clear that he was never really a workhorse, whether that was due to his own shortcomings earlier on or teams never really giving him a shot. Darling never played more than 26 regular-season games in the AHL, though he played well when he did, even in the playoffs. In fact, his career-high was 42 regular-season games with the USHL’s Indiana Ice in 2007-08.

Such factoids make Darling’s success story quite inspiring, but you wonder if the Hurricanes were guilty of too much wishful thinking. Yes, Darling was good (.915 save percentage in 29 appearances in 2015-16) to great (.936 in 14 games in 2014-15, .924 in 32 games last season) with the Chicago Blackhawks. Still, he was dismissed frequently during his career, only getting picked in the sixth round (153rd overall) in 2007 by the then-Phoenix Coyotes.

Draft stature doesn’t mean everything, especially with goalies. Henrik Lundqvist went in the seventh round. Plenty of first-rounders don’t pan out.

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The bottom line is that it’s tough to prognosticate how a goalie will react to a new environment, particularly when they’re going from backup to starter. The Hurricanes would be wise to explore their options in case Darling’s struggles are the rule rather than exception.

Why not get the ball rolling (puck dropping?) on a solution sooner rather than later?

For all we know, the Hurricanes might end up with two effective goalies if they try that approach; Darling might benefit from real competition rather than having a lame duck backup in Ward. They’d gladly take one instead of the far-too-common zero they’ve been dealing with for far too long.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.