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.

***

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.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”