If you are local and up for an informal Canes watch event at Bond Brothers Brewery in Cary for Thursday’s game, please ping me. If we can round up a decent group (8-10?), the hope is to do a first ever Canes and Coffee informal watch party. If we can’t get enough, we will punt on Thursday and aim for a different date in the future.
When Scott Darling was acquired by the Carolina Hurricanes in late April, I had an impression of him already. I had seen him play enough that I had a general idea of his style of play and skill set, but especially for players in the Western Conference who the Hurricanes see at most twice per year (and less for backup goalies), that impression is not the same as seeing a player for an extended stretch game in and game out during ups, downs and all varieties of NHL play.
Now 16 games (that is basically 20%) into the 2017-18 season, I will offer my initial impression of Scott Darling.
Important disclaimer on finality
Worth noting before I begin is the fact that while 16 games is enough to get a better read on what Scott Darling in a Hurricanes uniform means, it is by no means a final assessment. As I touched on in some detail in Monday’s game recap, there is a significantly different set of challenges being a #1 NHL goalie as compared to being a #2 goalie. No way is Darling fully adjusted in that important regard. That transition is likely to be an all-season process. In addition, the 12 starts that Darling has made are a decent sample size but probably not enough to make any kind of final assessment.
Scott Darling’s strengths through 12 starts
As advertised, Darling brings size to the net. The obvious and simple advantage of size is that a bigger body blocks more of the net. But I actually think that size that blocks an extra few % of the net is overrated. Rather, I think bigger goalies gain two sizable advantages. The first is that when they go down, the holes in the upper corners of the net are smaller and force even more pinpoint shooting precision. Second and maybe most significant is the mental aspect. I have not had time to see if anyone has accumulated stats on it, but my visual says that big goalies actually probably force players to put a lower proportion of shots on net as they try to be too fine when shooting and/or accidentally fall into the trap of missing the goalie and miss the whole net in the process. So in goaltending size does matter and to no one’s surprise it is a strength of Scott Darling.
But I think what is maybe more significant and something that is a bit different than what I expected is how agile Darling is. Big can often be equated with lumbering, slow and lacking quickness such that the general impression is a big wall that does well when squared up to a shoot but not so well if movement is needed. Darling scores way higher than I expected in terms of quickness but more significantly agility around the net. The result is that Darling is incredibly good at making adjustments when the puck location or situation changes such that as long as he is not screened, he is generally in very good position to make a save regardless of puck movement or anything else that happened just prior to a shot.
When you pair up the first two points above, the net effect is that Scott Darling is an incredibly good ‘first save goalie.’ Aside from one specific issue (see below), Darling is really tough to beat on first shots when he sees it. He is above average in terms of getting square to shooters and minimizing moving and also flashing out whatever needs to on shots that are not going to hit him.
I hesitate to say this because I fear it could be misconstrued as a rating on level of play, but Darling actually reminds me a bit of the good version (during that one hot streak) of Justin Peters. During that run, Peters was unbeatable on first shots when he saw them and used his size to make it tough on shooters. But he regularly needed help from his defense boxing out and clearing rebounds because as good as Peters was on first saves, the rebound control was always ‘meh’ at best. Darling has games when he is sharp and the rebound control is there to go with the first save play, but he has always had games where he looked to be just able to get a piece of first shots without much ability to control rebounds.
Another significant positive that I note in Darling’s game is his ability to always just move forward to the next shot. He has had some ups and downs and tough games already in a Hurricanes uniform, but his body language and rebound ability after a goal suggest that he is able to let things go and focus on the next shot. This is significant because it mostly steers around the fragile state that goalies can enter where one goal allowed increases the probability of another occurring.
Scott Darling’s weaknesses through 12 starts
As noted above, Scott Darling has had some downs to go with his ups through 16 games and 12 starts. As such, a few weaknesses have appeared.
First is that when he is not on, he struggles with rebound control. Even on nights when does not have his A game, Scott Darling is average if not better at fighting off first shots. But on the nights when he does not have it, he tends to spit out rebounds or sometimes even more so have pucks trickle through him and end up near but not underneath him. A telltale sign that he is at less than his best is when there are plays early where Darling makes saves, sort of has the puck near or under him but is not really sure where it is or if he has it such that there are regular goal mouth scrambles before the whistle is blown.
The other noticeable weakness is his tendency to start square to the puck but with an opening between his legs. His biggest hole thus far has been five hole in two different varieties. First is when players get chances from point blank range, they have on occasion been able to freeze him quickly by hesitating of stick handling and then quickly fire through him before he can close the hole. Similarly, Darling has been beaten five hole a couple times on shots when he was screened. In those cases, he does a good job of squaring up to the shooter and taking away as much net as possible with his large frame, but again he fails to close up the five hole and has a propensity to be beaten through him. In situations where a goalie is screened, goalie 101 says to get square to the shooter, be as big as possible to take away as much net as you can, and close up any holes such that the puck must find a corner to beat you. Too often, Darling does the first two things but then is beaten through a hole before he closes it up with the puck arriving.
Again, 12 games is a small sample size, so it is possible that identified weaknesses were just something that cropped up in early games but do not carry forward as the season progresses.
What I like most about Scott Darling thus far?
No matter how you slice it, there was pressure on Scott Darling entering the season. He was moving to a new team, and more significantly, he was being brought in as part of an effort to push the Hurricanes up into the playoffs. The result is a completely different mental/psychological situation versus being a backup with a solid starter in front of you and also being in a familiar situation.
With respect to taking on that new challenge, I have been impressed with Darling’s steadiness. He seems mostly unfazed by the new challenge and just focused on winning the next game or even just saving the next puck. I think that demeanor and composure is critical for starting goalies who will inevitably see highs and lows over the course of a long season but need to just keep playing the next puck. My impression of Scott Darling through 16 games is that he has the right mentality to handle the rigors of being a starter and that while he will have his physical/results ups and downs like any other goalie that he will not be overly prone to the more challenging types of slumps whereby a goalie hits a rough patch, and it then snowballs because of the pressure that comes with it.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Are you encouraged by Scott Darling’s first 12 starts in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform?
2) Is there anything about Scott Darling’s play thus far that is different than what you expected before the season started?
3) What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of Scott Darling’s play thus far during the 2017-18 season?