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Important to note is that this topic was chosen and the article mostly written before Tuesday’s loss to the Vancouver Canucks. It is NOT a knee jerk reaction to Tuesday’s loss. On that note, I did not think that Scott Darling was a story of the game on Tuesday. His three goals against on 21 shots was not great, and the goalie at the other end of the rink was better, but the team in front of him did not score and faded as the game wore on which primarily drove the outcome.
Coming of a playoff miss in 2015-16 during which goaltending was a significant weakness, Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis had an opportunity at least partially rework the crease. Francis was mostly locked in on Eddie Lack who was already under contract for two more years after Francis acquired him via trade the previous season and extended him for two years before he even stepped on the ice in Raleigh. But Cam Ward was coming off his seven-year contract and could either re-signed or replaced. Before the free agent even opened, Francis made the decision to commit to two more years of Cam Ward when he re-inked him for two years at $3.3 million per year. Finally, Francis also chose to push forward with goalie coach David Marcoux who still had one year remaining on his contract.
When you net it out, coming off a sub-par season goaltending-wise in 2015-16, Francis chose to push forward with the same group for 2016-17. Not surprisingly, the results were similar. Lack never really did find it in Hurricanes’ uniform except for a short burst at the end of the season after Coach Bill Peters’ lashed out at him in an interview. Ward had a run of strong play in the middle of the season but faded late maybe because of being overworked during a stretch when Peters rode Ward when Lack was out due to injury, and he did not want to turn to Michael Leighton. Despite a Ward upswing in the middle of the season and a short burst by Lack toward the end of the season, the Hurricanes again missed the playoffs with goaltending front and center in terms of weaknesses.
The summer of 2017
Unwilling to press his luck for a third try, Francis moved aggressively to address the goalie situation this past summer. First, he moved aggressively to unload Lack in a deal that saw the Hurricanes retain half of the salary on the final year of his contract. Next, Francis won a modest bidding war paying a third-round draft pick to obtain Chicago Blackhawks’ backup goalie Scott Darling and his exclusive negotiating rights for six weeks before he could become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Shortly after acquiring him, Francis made a big commitment to Darling with a four-year contract at slightly more than $4 million per year.
Francis also made the move to part ways with Goalie Coach David Marcoux and replaced him with former Penguins’ goalie coach Mike Bales who became available when Pittsburgh released him with the departure of his long-time student Marc-Andre Fleury.
When the summer concluded, Francis had changed two-thirds of the goalie trio from the previous season and most significantly had made a commitment to a new starting netminder. Also worth noting is that Francis did not tip toe on the move. He outbid Dallas to get Darling’s rights, and in Darling he added one of the two or three top options available at the position this summer. People can and will debate whether he picked the right player in Darling, but people cannot fault Francis for not addressing the weakness a second time around.
The not insignificant transition
I wrote multiple articles before the season started with two themes on Darling. The first was that the transition that he had to undertake should not be underestimated. Despite rating highly in terms of statistics over the past two years, he had never been a true #1. Sure, he had stepped into that role in Chicago when Corey Crawford was injured and had performed admirably, but that just is not the same thing as having the weight of a team on your shoulders, especially when that team is looking for you to lead the way into the playoffs.
In addition to his new role and the pressure that goes with it, Darling also had a number of other transitions to go with it. On the ice, he had a new team and team mates. Not insignificant is the fact that this one at least out of the gate was not as good as the one he played behind in Chicago. Say what you will about the Blackhawks’ top-heavy lineup and recent playoff struggles, but the team has been a regular season winner. In addition, Darling had to adjust to a new coach and goalie coach.
When you couple the volume of changes for Scott Darling with the fact that goalies are some combination of black magic, inconsistent race horse and voodoo (personal opinion, not documented or proven fact), I think that considering Darling to be a sure thing upon launch was putting the cart before the horse.
Through one-third of the 2017-18 season
Thursday’s game in San Jose will be game #27 which marks the one-third mark of the 82-game NHL season. Through 27 games in a Hurricanes uniform, the single word that jumps out at me to describe Scott Darling’s play thus far in inconsistent. He has had his share of solid outings and even stolen a couple wins that the Hurricanes probably did not deserve. But along the way, he has had more than a good starter’s fair share of rough outings many of the variety that decide outcomes negatively.
Right now, Darling ranks ahead of only Craig Anderson and emergency fill in starter Maxime Lagace with his .903 save percentage.
In short, Darling has not lived up to hopes thus far. Further, he so far has not met the minimum target set this summer of being at least NHL average.
So should we write Scott Darling off as a bust?
In a word, no. It is far too soon to do that. As noted above, the transition that he is making is significant and not something to be taken lightly. A lights out start would obviously have been preferred, but the slow start does not automatically guarantee a failure. Darling has had games where he was at least ‘good enough’ if not better. And even good NHL starters will hit some rough patches over the course of a long 82-game season. The key for Darling is to grind out enough decent outings to keep the team at least treading water and then at some point build a rhythm and find a higher gear.
A divergence in usage as compared to the Eddie Lack failure
With a new goalie, patience is critical. Because of how poorly it worked out, Canes fans generally portray the acquisitions of Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as wildly different things. But I am not sure that is truly the case. Lack joined the Hurricanes as the older version of a young and relatively inexperienced NHL goalie. Lack actually had more games of NHL experience than Darling, and both were coming off the kind of season that suggested they could be ready to be an NHL starter. And both arrived in Raleigh with the hope that he would play a key role in boosting the team’s goaltending.
Lack failed to launch out of the gate. There is a reasonable case to be made for the fact that Eddie Lack was just a bust who was not going to work under any circumstances. But when he started slowly, he very quickly had the rug pulled out from under him and was left to try to build some kind of rhythm with very little real game action to do so. Lack was given a few games here and there but always with a very short leash. Except for the stretch at the end of the 2015-16 season which was his second with the Hurricanes, he was never afforded a good stretch of runway and given the chance to work things out and rise up into a starter’s role.
I do think Darling is just a better goalie than Lack, but maybe equally significant is the fact that the team seems committed to him through ups and downs. Though his 2017-18 has been up and down, he remains the starter. Thus far, Ward has seen action only in games that would normally be given to the backup. I actually thought that the run of Ward taking “backup starts” could end on Tuesday, but instead the team forged one game deeper into the 2017-18 still hitched to Darling as its starter.
It is not certain whether Darling maintaining the starter role has been due to circumstance, steadfast commitment or some combination of both. Part of it might simply be that Darling and Ward have mostly moved in lockstep this season. Both started reasonably well but also had a ‘meh’ start in there. Both generally played well as the season wore on. Both also had a stellar effort to steal a win but then followed that up with a tough stretch. Because Ward has mostly been down at the same times Darling was, we might not yet have a read on just how committed Peters is to Darling if Ward temporarily becomes the better goalie.
The path ahead if I was coach/GM
Especially from a general manager viewpoint, I would err strongly on the side of committing to Darling until he gets it going. The team is in for four years at $4 million per year. Equally significantly, the past few years offer a fairly compelling argument for the case that Ward is not the goalie to lead this team back to the playoffs. As such, I think there is strong incentive to commit to Darling and live and die with the results.
From Bill Peters’ perspective things are fuzzier. Peters very much needs to win and coach the team into the playoffs. I am not sure we have seen it yet, but if the team reaches a point when the best chance to win even short-term is to start Ward, Peters has significant incentive to go that direction. That is especially true with the team below the playoff cut line and desperately seeking a way to push up the standings.
If Ward starts playing well while Darling is still down, how Peters manages his goalies will come front and center. On the one hand, a run of non-playoff seasons with Ward suggests that perhaps the best course of action is to stay fully hitched to Darling figuring that it at least offers some chance versus none for ward. On the other hand, Peters could try to buy time by focusing on a game by game basis short-term in which case Ward could be the best choice short-term.
Could the Hurricanes be on the brink of a 1A/1B situation in net?
As noted above, the Hurricanes have yet to hit the “goalie controversy” level maybe simply because Ward has yet to be up while Darling is down. After a loss on Tuesday, I think there is a reasonable chance that Peters again turns to Ward. And though this is a game that could go to the starter, I do not think it officially bumps Darling out of the starter role. But if Ward starts and plays well on Thursday and Peters then comes back to him on Saturday, the team seems to at least have a 1A/1B situation all of a sudden. That adds another bit of uncertainty to Darling. Does this create adversity for Darling? If so, does that spur him to better or worse play? And if the goal is ultimately to get back to Darling as the starter, how might Peters accomplish this?
Ideal would be if the Hurricanes were playing so well that the goalie play did not matter so much. That could enable Darling to work out any kinks without jeopardizing the 2017-18 season. But that unfortunately is not the case. The Hurricanes continue to bump up and down but mostly move sideways such that it is currently an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to trying to win hockey games.
I really like that Peters and the team have been steadfast in the commitment to Darling thus far. Any kind of knee jerk reaction early could have long-lasting effects on a player that the team is committed to for four years.
And I think that the goal must continue to be to help Darling grow into the starter’s role that he was signed to fill.
But at the same time, the team is getting to the point when it really needs wins, so if Ward becomes the better option, it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup.
And I am NOT willing to chuck the 2017-18 season to build for the future.
What say you Caniacs?
1) How would you rate Scott Darling’s play thus far?
2) What, if anything, does it take for you to hand the reins to Cam Ward at least short-term to collect some wins?
3) More generally, how would you manage the goalie situation if you were the coach?