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.”
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.