Darling getting leave of absence is reminder of human element of hockey

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The Carolina Hurricanes granted Scott Darling a leave of absence without a stated timeline for his return. Darling, 30, had been playing for the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell confirmed as much to Chip Alexander of The News & Observer, going into detail on why Darling decided to take that personal leave.

“Since he’s been down there he’s had some good games and some bad games,” Waddell said. “He had a tough game the other night and his agent called me and said he would like to take a personal leave of absence and would we allow that to get his mind back together. That night he got rocked for about five (goals) and before he had a shutout (in regulation) before we lost in overtime 1-0. So we gave him the leave of absence.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in numbers when you’re talking about hockey, whether you’re talking about losing streaks, records, cap hits, or who won head-to-head in fantasy that week. It’s almost inevitable, then, to forget that human beings are involved.

[PHT Q&A with Darling from January 2018]

Darling is in a situation that makes him especially vulnerable to becoming discouraged by numbers.

There’s no denying that he’s struggled since signing a four-year, $16.6 million contract (through 2020-21) with the Hurricanes. After putting together a sterling run as a Blackhawks backup (.923 save percentage in 75 games over three seasons), Darling’s seen his play plummet. His save percentage has been at an unsightly .887 save percentage in 51 games with Carolina, and things have been just as rocky in the AHL.

The big goalie is far from the only netminder who hasn’t been able to get it done for the Hurricanes, but he undoubtedly must have felt like he had been letting his team down, and not living up to his contract.

And don’t forget, this is a goalie who had to scratch and claw for opportunities.

Darling was barely drafted (a sixth-rounder, 153rd overall, by the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2007), climbing from the SPHL to the ECHL to the AHL and finally the NHL. It must be a real shock to Darling’s system to hit this snag, and perhaps it doesn’t help that the sport has become so fast and skilled for a towering goalie.

There’s also the nature of the goaltending position.

It’s bad enough for Milan Lucic, a winger whose struggles and beefy contract make it tough to slip under the radar. But when a goalie is fighting it, there’s really no hiding.

With that in mind, allowing Darling to take a leave of absence doesn’t just need to inspire inevitable cynicism about him frankly not playing that well. Taking a break from beating himself up could really help Darling rebound, even if he’s never the goalie the Hurricanes rolled the dice with.

Waddell backed up such thoughts, merely saying that the Hurricanes will check in with Darling in about a week, and that the goalie will receive “100-percent support” from the team.

“We all know he’s had ups and downs in his career, and we’ll be supportive,” Waddell said. “He’s still under contract for two more years and we’ve got to see if we can get this thing back together.”

Darling’s struggled before, as he discussed in detail when saying goodbye to the Blackhawks in The Players’ Tribune back in June 2017.

The thing about alcoholism is that you never think you have a problem. That’s how it gets you. Because it always starts small. For me, it started as a way to cope with social anxiety. Ever since I was a kid, I kind of lived inside my own brain. I was an introvert, and I was so worried about what everyone thought about me at all times. Like if I walked into a room of 100 people, I wanted to make sure all 100 people thought I was cool. I was obsessed with being the best version of myself at all times.

Darling was able to get his career back on track despite those struggles, so perhaps he can do it again? Most importantly, here’s hoping that Darling finds peace of mind, because there are more important things than how many pucks he can stop.

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.

Where Avs are at after re-signing J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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

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