Scott Darling is scheduled to meet with the media at PNC Arena at 4pm on Wednesday. So timing is perfect to fly this article out there on Wednesday morning timed well to be buried by articles on Wednesday night and Thursday morning that include quotes about wanting to win the Stanley Cup and other sound bites of Carolina Hurricanes hockey goodness.
After staring at near league bottom goaltending for the 2015-16 season but still making the decision to re-sign Cam Ward, retain goalie coach David Marcoux and just ride forward on Eddie Lack’s contract, the elation in the Hurricanes hockey community over the trade for Scott Darling was justified. The step in a new direction is in itself reason for optimism.
Scott Darling represents three layers of conceptual goodness
As I said in my commentary after the trade and the signing, at the most basic level, the set of transactions represented three things. First, they showed that Francis was going to address the goalie situation this summer after not doing so last summer. Second, it clearly signified that Francis was shifting from “rebuild at all costs” to at least a more balanced approach that aimed for making the 2018 NHL playoffs. And finally, even though Scott Darling cannot assure a different ending to the 2017-18 season, it will at a minimum disperse the angst that has found its way to the same position too often in recent years.
Darling is also one of the higher-end upgrades available
During an offseason with unique circumstances around the expansion draft that will make an unprecedented number of viable goalie options available, I think it is impossible to say right now who the best option is. That will only become clearer once we see results. But based on everything I have read and various rankings, I think it is fair to say that Francis landed an option in the top tier and a player who at least has a reasonable case to being the best available.
Credit to Ron Francis
Credit goes to Ron Francis for recognizing the need to upgrade in net and aggressively making a move to address it. Only time will tell if he made the right choice, but regardless of the outcome, no one will be able to say that Francis did not try or that the team failed because of Francis’ unwillingness to act or make the financial investment needed.
If you want to bask in the glory of the Hurricanes adding Scott Darling, please stop reading this article and return to my original article on Scott Darling being signed.
But goalies by nature are erratic and unpredictable
But because of the finicky nature of goalies and how erratic they can be, saying that Ron Francis made a good move to try to address the need is incredibly different than saying that he for certain fixed the problem.
One-time franchise goalies who garnered massive contracts and long-term commitments have flopped and actually recovered in some cases. That list includes Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo, Pecca Rinne, Kari Lehtonen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jimmy Howard and none other than Cam Ward. At the time each of these players was signed, he was a young can’t miss type of goalie. Interestingly, while all had down stretches, many have rebounded in the long run.
My unscientific math says that no matter how good things look on the front end, any goalie goalie coming into a new situation has no better than a 75 percent chance of being successful especially right out of the gate.
Ron Francis’ track record at the goalie position
This might sound harsh, but if Francis is right with Scott Darling, I think it could actually be fair to say that it will be his first decision-making win for the goalie position.
His first summer as general manager included hiring David Marcoux. Under Marcoux’s leadership, the Hurricanes trucked along near the bottom of the NHL in goaltending statistics. In addition, in consecutive years, the team saw two different goalies take a significant step down after transitioning to Marcoux. First it was Anton Khudobin in 2014-15, and then it was Eddie Lack in 2015-16.
In his second summer as the general manager, Francis made a big trade for Eddie Lack and then before seeing Lack play in a Hurricanes’ uniform committed to two more years of Lack at $2.75 million per year. We can debate whether or not those decisions were smart at the time, but in terms of yielding results, I think we can fairly say that Francis went 0 for 3 that summer. We can debate whether the cause was injuries, coaching, how he was used or some combination of all three, but I think it is fairly clear that in total Lack has not worked and also that Francis would have waited before committing to two more years if he had a mulligan on that deal.
In his third summer, Francis saw Cam Ward come off his expensive long-term contract therefore freeing up one of the two available NHL goalie slots. Before trade season around the NHL draft or free agency even started, Francis moved quickly and assertively to re-sign Cam Ward. Ward had a stretch of strong play in the middle of the season, but when the dust settled on the 2016-17 season, Ward had again fallen into the bottom half of the league by virtually any goalie metric.
In short, thus far Ron Francis’ track record in terms of goalie decisions is a run of misses.
And then there is the issue of goalie management
I included a few of the details in the chronology linked to above, but there is very much an element of goalie management that can contribute to success. The Ottawa Senators have this uncanny knack for first developing goalies but then I think equally importantly just chucking into an NHL lineup with the right mindset (and do not believe for a second that is not important) to succeed.
Meanwhile, it is not clear that Bill Peters has a feel for this. After two years, it took MAFS to help Lack find a higher gear. And the middle of the season saw Peters ride 32-year old Ward for an entire quarter of the season with only one off day before he seemed to collapse and fade down the stretch.
I admit that it is impossible to judge whether Peters should have done different and also whether he could have done better given the personnel and circumstances. But I will say that my non-scientific opinion is that this is something worth watching.
What happens if Scott Darling starts slow and puts up 2-3 bad outings to start the season? Does Peters show commitment and try to ride him out of it? Or would Darling be better off with a short break to reset?
In an ideal world, Darling will the ground running and sprint right into Vezina contention while lifting the Hurricanes into the playoffs, but what if the ride is bumpier?
Scott Darling himself
And though many will consider it heresy to question anything about Scott Darling while we are still in the honeymoon period, at some point I think it needs to be acknowledged (partly just due to the erratic goalie thing detailed above) that as great of an option as he is, there is some risk.
What jumped out me in the press release following his signing was when he said, “I’m going to do everything in my power to learn how to be the best starter I can be. I have a good network of goalie friends, and I’m going to be picking their brains and asking for help, just trying I can do everything I can to be successful in that role.” The quote highlights the fact that he has never really been an NHL starter. Sure he filled in admirably for Crawford in Chicago, but that just is not the same as being the guy.
Statistics-wise, all indications are that Darling is ready, and that is obviously what Ron Francis is betting on with a 4-year commitment at $4.15 million per year. Darling’s .923 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average at the NHL level check out fine, but what also stands out is the fact that he has only 75 games of NHL experience.
As long as we are teetering on the edge of doubt, I would go so far as to say that Darling looks eerily similar to the Eddie Lack that arrived in Raleigh with a nice luster before having it chipped off in a hurry. Lack was coming off a strong season in Vancouver that saw him lead the Canucks to the playoffs. Lack had only 82 games of NHL experience when he arrived, but it was okay because he was an emerging starter on an upward trajectory and ready to seize the reins. Until he wasn’t.
Rescue me from goaltender paranoia!
Again, I generally grade Francis highly despite the run of goalie missteps. More than anything, I appreciate that Francis is going for it. And when presented with the many options, I like Scott Darling and consider him in the top tier of options.
So I’m just scared and scarred from our painful history and just a little bit paranoid, right?
Everyone chime in and tell me to be more optimistic and steer away from the dark side! GO!