About an hour after the Hurricanes acquired Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, I posted my initial thoughts on the deal. After some time to digest the deal, I stand by my original comments which you can find HERE.
The Sunday Canes Chronicle included four external articles that detail his path to the NHL and ultimately the Hurricanes.
The Monday Coffee Shop offers read polls and discussion questions on the Scott Darling trade, prospects of signing him and the related path forward.
Here are some additional thoughts on Scott Darling and the transaction in total.
Francis’ transition from opportunistic to focused
The vast majority of the analysis (including mine) of the trade for Scott Darling will focus on Darling himself and the contract situation. A subtle but significant underlying story is Francis’ shift. In the past two summers, Francis has opportunistically shopped to find deals with value. The Versteeg deal netted two NHLers for very little capitalizing on Chicago’s salary cap situation. The Teravainen/Bickell deal was the same. And signing Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg as value free agents followed the same strategy. Spending a draft pick for a non-guaranteed addition is a somewhat more aggressive move to fill a very targeted need with one of the higher-end options available on the market. If he can get Darling under contract, he will have filled one of the team’s two biggest needs very early in the offseason and not spent too much in terms of futures/trade assets to do it. That will set the stage for trying to do one more big deal to add a top-end forward.
I noted in part 1 that this type of deal regularly includes a conditional pick that upgrades if and only if the player ultimately signs. If Darling simply decides that he wants to consider and ultimately sign another offer as a free agent after July 1 which is perfectly within his rights, the cost of a third round draft pick for absolutely nothing is pretty steep. My initial guess was that Francis might have been granted permission to talk to Darling’s agent and become reasonably confident that he could get a deal done. Francis’ and Darling’s comments after the deal seem to suggest that there was not contact before the trade and that negotiations will start from square one when they begin.
So why then might Francis take the risk? I see three reasons that make sense. First, he had to. If there were other bidders just maybe that was what he had to or at least thought he had to pay. Second, he sees value in paying to negotiate early. The obvious reason is the two months of exclusive rights, but I think there could also be value in paying significantly to get Darling. It is a sign of commitment and should make Darling feel wanted which is always a positive. Third is that quite simply the odds of the Hurricanes winning a free for all bidding war on July 1 are slim.
So while there is definitely risk in ponying up a third round draft pick with no guarantees, there are reasons that make this a calculated and logical decision.
The road less traveled
This season people have talked about Derek Ryan’s long and uncommon road to the NHL that included three Canadian college hockey and three different stops in Europe. If there is a player who can top that it just might be Scott Darling. After being thrown out of college at the University of Maine after his sophomore season, he clocked in with three ECHL teams and two SPHL teams in his journey through 9 different teams after the University of Maine and before arriving with the Blackhawks. Darling’s story is another great story of persistence, and he, like Ryan, has a Masterton Trophy nomination to his credit. His winding path to the NHL is chronicled in a couple of the articles in the Sunday Canes Chronicle article.
A bargain or a bust
The trade is a step into the world of taking some risk for Francis who has generally been conservative thus far. Losing a third-round draft pick for nothing would not be catastrophic, but if Darling does not sign, the deal would clearly be a loss.
On the other hand, if Francis gets a deal done as expected, spending only a third round pick to fill a huge need with a targeted player is well worth it if Darling boosts the goaltending. Last summer, Toronto spent a first and a second round pick to get arguably the top netminder available, so if one makes the claim that getting access to Darling before the masses was the only way to win him, it looks inexpensive.
The other dominoes – Cam Ward and Eddie Lack
If Darling signs, I think Francis then exposes both Ward and Lack to the expansion draft. While I think there is an outside chance that Ward is taken, I think more likely they both return when Las Vegas finds better options at the goalie position. I think the only way that Ward comes onto Las Vegas’ radar is if they do a couple deals agreeing not to select other goalies which pushes them farther down the list to Ward. Otherwise, I think Francis tries to package Lack in a broader deal. But ultimately, I think the most likely ending is that Lack is bought out after the expansion draft and before free agency, and the Hurricanes start the 2017-18 season with Darling and Ward as the goalie tandem.
What will it take to sign Darling?
At a basic level, Darling is relatively inexperienced backup with a strong track record and statistics albeit in limited starts and as a #2 goalie except when filling in temporarily.
If you do not care for the extensive player by player details, skip to bottom to cut to the chase and find the numbers.
There is a good collection of similar goalies who have signed in recent years:
Pending unrestricted free agents
Eddie Lack: To find a comparable, Hurricanes fans need to look no farther than home. When Eddie Lack was extended by the Hurricanes, he was coming off of a strong second half of the previous season leading the Canucks to the playoffs. Hurricanes fans will want to deny it, but Darling looks eerily similar to Lack in multiple respects. Both were late bloomers – Lack 27 years old and Darling 28. Lack had 84 games of NHL experience compared to Darling’s 75 games. Lack was coming off a strong season statistically with a .921 save percentage and 2.47 goals against average which is only slightly below Darling’s .924 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. Before playing in a Hurricanes uniform, Lack was extended for two years at $2.75 million per year. Relevant to Lack’s contract is that it was signed with a year left on his contract and therefore at a time when he did not have the option to test the free agent market at the time though he could have if he played out the last year of his contract before re-signing.
Cam Talbot: After a very limited but impressive run of hockey for the New York Rangers behind Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Talbot left the Rangers and entered the open market as a unrestricted free agent after only 57 games of NHL experience at the age of 28. Talbot’s impressive seasons with a .941 save percentage and 1.64 goals against average in 21 games in 2014-15 and .921 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average in 36 games in 2015-16 were enough to convince Edmonton to bet on him. The Oilers signed Talbot committed to Talbot for 3 years at $4.17 million per season.
Restricted free agents with somewhat similar experience levels
Steve Mason: Leveraging a strong 2013-14 season as a 25-year old restricted free agent, Mason signed a 3-year deal with the Flyers for $4.1 million. In 2013-14, Mason logged a .917 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average in 61 games as the Flyers starter.
Petr Mrazek: Mrazek signed for two years at $4 million per year (importantly) as a restricted free agent after his break out season in Detroit. As a starter in 2015-16, Mrazek posted a .921 save percentage and 2.31 goals against average before signing his new deal as a restricted free agent.
Jacob Markstrom: As a 27-year old restricted free agent to be, Markstrom recently re-signed for three years at $3.67 million per season. He has 109 games of NHL experience spread over 7 seasons. His career .906 save percentage and 2.91 goals against average do not scream ‘starter’, but he appears to be the #1 going forward in Vancouver.
Frederik Andersen: His situation is interesting as relates to Scott Darling in the sense that it was another trade then sign though Andersen’s situation was significantly different in that he was a restricted free agent with no ability to test the open market. Andersen was also somewhat more prove with 125 games of NHL experience and two seasons in a 1A/1B or starter role. Theoretically because of his higher experience level, Andersen probably sets a firm price ceiling with his 5-year deal at $5 million per season.
Martin Jones: As a restricted free agent before the 2015=16 season, a 25-year old Martin Jones signed for three years at $3 million per season. Prior to the contract, Jones had logged only 34 games at the NHL level with an impressive first season (1.81 GAA, .934 Save % in 18 games) and a somewhat less impressive second season (2.25 GAA, .906 Save % in 15 games).
Jake Allen: Signing a year early like Eddie Lack, Jake Allen received four years at $4.35 million per season starting in 2017-18 at the age of 27. Allen has fairly extensive experience as a starter or at least a 1A/1B. When he starts his new contract this fall, it will be his fourth at least sharing the starting job.
A couple veterans with a bit more experience
Devyn Dubnyk: As an unrestricted coming off an inexpensive contract as a 29-year old before the 2015-16 season, Dubnyk was rewarded with a 6-year deal at $4.33 million per season. To earn that contract, Dubnyk cashed in on a magical run of 39 games the season before after being acquired via trade. In that run, Dubnyk was lights out with a 1.78 goals against average and 2.36 goals against average. Dubnyk is also different in that he had logged more than 200 games over an extensive NHL career.
Thomas Greiss: As a 31-year old impending unrestricted free agent playing and doing fairly well in a starting role, Greiss re-upped with the Islanders for three years at $3.33 million per season on the back of a season with 51 starts and a 2.69 goals against average and .913 save percentage. Like Dubnyk, Greiss is much more of a proven veteran with 181 games at the NHL level over 8 years.
Netting out the range for Scott Darling’s salary
When one does the math, the absolute ceiling seems to be set by Frederik Andersen’s contract for $5 million per season. The floor seems to be around $3 million where Martin Jones landed and slightly above where Eddie Lack landed.
Because Francis committed to some degree already and because Darling does have the option to just say ‘no thank you’ and at least test the open market on July 1, he has significant negotiating leverage. But he also has the opportunity that he wants, which is to be a starter, sitting right in front of him.
I think Darling’s agent uses the negotiating leverage and pushes for the higher-end of the range that includes Allen at $4.35 million, Mrazek at $4 million, Mason at $4.1 million and Talbot at $4.17 million. And I do not think Francis has too much ability to push for lower if Darling demands the high end of reasonable like this.
So I think the range is $3.5 – $4.5 million, and I think Darling ultimately comes in somewhere in the top half of that range for a 3 or 4-year deal.
My prediction is either 3 years at $4 million per year.
I think anything north of $4.5 million starts getting really pricey if it is a three or four-year commitment. $3.5 million or less starts to be a pretty good bargain and fits well with a 1A/1B strategy that pays both goalies about equally.
Simply because I consider any goalie to be risky and one with fewer than 100 games even more risky, I would prefer a 3-year deal over 4 and would not be averse to a 2-year deal that adds risk that the team has to negotiate again in only two years but decreases downside risk if things do not work out.
Head to the Monday Coffee Shop to chime on on the Scott Darling deal.