This article is one of two dueling Daily Cup of Joe posts that aim to address the serious goalie situation but also try to add a bit of levity to the situation. The lighter article can be found HERE.
We have reached what seems like an inevitable point in a Carolina Hurricanes season when the team’s netminding rises to be front and center in a season effort that just is not good enough.
To be clear, there is a sizable last chapter of 35 games yet to be played to could completely change the story. But as of January 22, 2018 the story is both painful and all too familiar.
When I graded the goalies at the midway point, I actually gave Cam Ward high marks IMPORTANTLY in a backup role. He has been good enough as a backup with a solid 12-6-2 record (adjusted for one loss unfairly credited to Darling per weird NHL rules for assigning goalie wins and losses). His .907 save percentage is not spectacular by any means, and Ward has been a bit inconsistent, but the results are easily good enough for a backup….IF the starter is performing acceptably.
And therein lies the problem. We have officially reached the point where there is no half-good evaluation of Scott Darling’s season thus far. What might have been termed ‘inconsistent’ or a ‘mediocre start’ early in the season has given way to simply sub-par. I gave Darling a C- which is basically the bottom of my friendly grading system that mostly grades A through C.
No matter how you slice it, through 47 games the situation is bad.
Francis versus the competition during the offseason
During the offseason, five different teams who had missed the 2016-17 playoffs (counting Vegas) made an attempt to upgrade the starting goalie slot in hopes of better results in the 2017-18 season.
Right now, all of the other four teams who made a move to add a #1 goalie are currently in playoff position at least partially due to good or better play in net.
That is to say that among his peers, Francis is the sole loser in a five-man game of musical chairs centering around the goalie position.
Dallas Stars: The Dallas Stars added arguably the biggest name when they signed Ben Bishop to a six-year $4.9 million per year contract. Dallas currently sits in a wild card slot in the Western Conference. Ben Bishop currently carries a solid 2.46 goals against average and .917 save percentage playing in front of a team that was bad defensively in 2016-17.
Calgary Flames: After trying for a year with Brian Elliott, Calgary decided go a new direction by adding veteran Mike Smith. Smith has been stellar as a workhorse posting a 2.42 goals against average and .925 save percentage on the way to a 20-13-4 record. Calgary currently sits in the third playoff spot in the Pacific Division.
Vegas Golden Knights: And the story of the year in the NHL features another team with a new goalie (obviously because they did not play in 2016-17) who is playing well and leading the way. Marc-Andre Fleury, who seemingly could have been available to the Hurricanes in the expansion draft horse trading, has been scintillating with a 1.68 goals against average and an eye-popping .945 save percentage in leading Vegas to the best record in the NHL thus far.
Arizona Coyotes: At first glance, the Arizona Coyotes who added Antti Raanta jump out as another miss in the goalie department. No doubt, their league worst record suggests big problems, but interestingly Rantta has maybe not been the problem. His 2.61 goals against average and .917 save percentage are not bad especially if you cut him some slack based on how bad Arizona has been thus far.
When one nets it out based on results through 47 games, Francis finished fifth out of five teams in the game of starting goalie musical chairs and by a sizable margin compared to the top three teams each of whom are likely to make the playoffs.
Comparing the 2017-18 goalie options?
What jumps out about the other goalies is the volume of experience and maybe more significantly volume of experience in a starting role.
Looking back on my article from April 28, 2017 when Darling was acquired, my risk factors now read like an ominous foreboding of things to come.
My first reaction is that I am thrilled that Francis is making an upgrade in net, and that he is getting it out of the way early. I also like Darling and his potential to be a #1 goalie for multiple years.
If I had to note reservations about Darling in terms of risk/potential downside it would be threefold. First, he has never really been a #1 (other than as an injury fill in or player who temporarily took the job), so he has yet to carry that burden and the pressure that comes with it especially during tough stretches. Second, he has barely more than what I would consider a single season’s workload (60-65 games) under his belt. It was spread over three different seasons which helps, but I think it is fair to say that he is on the light side in terms of proven experience relative to other options. Finally, I have long been hesitant to sign goalies who look good in good situations. The Blackhawks floundered in the playoffs this season, but they have been a top of the league team during the regular season during Darling’s time. We can debate how big it is exactly and how quickly it is shrinking, but there is a gap between what he played behind in Chicago and what he will play behind in Raleigh.
I would rate Darling high for potential ceiling and in the top third at least of options based his play during the 2016-17 season. Based on his relatively low experience level and production in a great situation, I would also rate him as above average in terms of risk. That risk level increases if his deal price and term are high.
When one compares the three goalies who are excelling to Scott Darling, what jumps out is experience.
Marc-Andre Fleury: He has been primarily a starter for more than a decade and has nearly 10 times as many games at the NHL level as Darling. Fleury could have worked or not worked, but there was no question entering the 2017-18 as to whether he was capable of being a starter.
Mike Smith: He crossed the 500-game mark in net at the NHL level in 2017-18 with many of those starts in recent years being in a #1 goalie role.
Ben Bishop: Bishop does not have quite the volume of NHL time as the first two, but he has been a starter for a couple years, and his 270 games of NHL experience entering the 2017-18 and run of successful years as a starter put him firmly in the ‘experienced’ category with the other two.
Antti Raanta: Raanta looks a bit more like Darling as a long-time backup to Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers. Like Darling, Raanta entered the 2017-18 season with less than 100 games in net at the NHL level and exclusively in a backup role except filling in for injury.
Hindsight being 20/20, experience has won out by a wide margin thus far. Whereas it seems fair to now question whether Scott Darling will rebound and become a true #1, the three players who are are excelling entered the season having already proven that they could do this.
Did Francis miss? And did he make a poor choice?
At first glance, some might lump these two questions together. For “Did Francis miss?”, through 47 games, the answer is very clearly yes. And in a results-based business, the first question does seem to lead straight into the second question.
I do not think it is that clear partly because I have a huge bias toward considering any and all goalies a dice roll at any given point in time. Whereas, I think Francis clearly did make a poor choice to go back to Lack/Ward/Marcoux for the 2016-17 after it failed in 2015-16, I do not think Francis decision to target Darling is as clearly a miss.
Again, I was on record as preferring a more proven option, and I think hindsight being 20/20 Francis would do similar if he had a mulligan to try again, but Darling was one of the top 3-4 options available last summer. It just has not worked.
So when results matter and have a spotlight on them after eight playoff misses, I think it is fair to give Francis a failing grade for his biggest decision this summer in selecting and adding Scott Darling to address the team’s goalie struggles. But I do think one needs to temper the blame with the fact that there is always an element of randomness to it all especially at the goalie position.
Francis’ short track record at the goalie position is not good
Now three and a half seasons deep in the general manager role for the Carolina Hurricanes, Ron Francis deserves a ton of credit for rebuilding a farm system that was near the bottom of the league when he took over. He also deserves credit for making some good value moves to build the team’s NHL roster depth in three years.
And in the early years, the netminding did not matter too much because the team in front of the net was rebuilding and just not good enough to win regardless of goalie. But with the team improving year by year and the netminders continuing to be a drag each and every year, we have reached the point when Ron Francis’ inability to figure out the goalie slot has become the Achilles’ heel for a team that could do better.
Putting it bluntly, Francis’ decisions for the goalie position have been a straight run of misses working in unison with Bill Peters. I will mostly detail it again below, but last March I wrote a part 1 and part 2 on the goalie chronology under Ron Francis and Bill Peters.
2014-15–Going with what we have: Francis inherited a pairing of Anton Khudobin and Cam Ward and in the first year of rebuild probably rightfully decided to just roll with it. Many probably have forgotten by now, but Khudobin was coming off a strong 2013-14 season with a 2.30 goals against average and .925 save percentage, but Peters started Ward on opening day and never really seemed to give the younger Khudobin a chance to see if he could find the same level of play in 2014-15.
2015-16–Francis tries to fix it and doubles down before seeing his cards: After a tough 2014-15 season in net, Francis made his first attempt to chart a difference course in net. In related deals, he sent Khudobin off to Anaheim and added Eddie Lack who was coming off a short by reasonably strong stretch run the previous season. Lack looked about like Darling in that he was somewhat older, had a short run of strong hockey and had made a case for upside based on a fairly small sample size less than 100 games. Before Lack even stepped onto the ice at PNC Arena, Francis committed by extending Lack for two more years (so three total). The whole project failed upon launch. Lack struggled early, and less than one month into Lack’s three-year commitment Ward was again the starter and the team was struggling to try to find the spark needed to launch Lack. It never really happened for more than a game here or there, and Lack finished the season with a meager .901 save percentage and 2.81 goals against average.
2016-17–Francis decides to play the losing hand again in hopes of better results: With two years remaining on Lack’s contract and coming off a sub-par 2015-16 season, Francis had little chance of moving Lack and starting anew in that slot. But he did have a couple other levers at his disposal. Cam Ward was coming off his long $6.5 million contract, and there was always the possibility of trying to spark things with a new goalie coach.
Inexplicably (to me anyway), Francis decided to re-sign Ward, keep Marcoux and in the process bring back the full set of three that comprised arguably the worst netminding in the NHL. There is always a chance that things change, but a strategy of betting that bad just magically turns to good is not very often a wise one.
Not surprisingly, the results were similar. He did have a short burst of wins after the infamous “Make a $!&#(# save! comment from Peters and finished with an 8-7-3 and mark, but he never really found it in Raleigh as indicated by his .902 save percentage and inconsistent play. Ward played some of his best hockey in recent times during the middle of the season, but with Lack injured and Peters unwilling to trust Michael Leighton, Peters proceeded to ride Ward into the ground. The result was that the team’s netminding failed when needed the most, and the same trio in the goalie box were again a weakness in total when assessing why the team missed the playoffs.
2017-18–Francis tries again with eerily similar player and gets same results: What jumped out most to me when Francis added Scott Darling was how similar he looked to Eddie Lack. He was an older goalie who was a late bloomer and had built his resume as a backup with only 75 games of NHL experience. In choosing Darling, Francis bet simultaneously that Darling could navigate the transition to a new team and from backup to starter and maybe more simply that he was really starter caliber at all.
And here we are.
The next offseason now shapes up to be really interesting
First is to again acknowledge that the final chapters which are yet to be written could still dramatically change things. But if things continue down the same path with the Hurricanes again missing the playoffs, goaltending in total not being up to snuff and Darling not rebounding to be at least a serviceable starter, the upcoming offseason could shake up to be Francis’ most interesting yet.
Things would set up very much like the summer of 2016 when Francis had Ward coming off contract and his hopeful starter locked in but not filling the role.
On January 11, my Daily Cup of Joe article was entitled, “Seven big decisions/situations that Ron Francis will face next offseason.” In it, I discussed the potentially strange interplay between Scott Darling’s level of play down the stretch and whether or not Cam Ward is re-signed. If things continue on the same path, I do not think Darling and his $4.1 million salary cap hit will be marketable. And Francis will very much want to have a second goalie who could potentially be a #1. So if Darling continues to struggle and Ward looks capable only of being a backup, Darling’s struggles and immovability contract-wise could force Francis to use Ward’s slot for an upgrade in net.
The goalie situation muddies the waters for accountability between Francis and Peters
In addition, to possibly creating a complex situation in net, the Hurricanes’ 2017-18 goalie struggles if they continue could also create an interesting situation in terms of evaluating both Ron Francis and Bill Peters at the end of the season.
If the Hurricanes narrowly miss the playoffs (which is where they stand right now) and the goaltending never shapes up, is it fair to say that Peters did his job and that Francis just did get him good enough goaltending to achieve results in a playoff berth? Or is goalie management and how the team plays partly responsible and on Peters?
In short, if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs again with goaltending being the single biggest factor like it is so far, I think that is more on Francis than on Peters which creates an interesting situation in terms of evaluating both and assigning blame for the 2017-18 miss.
Finally, is it possible that Scott Darling rebounds?
With each passing sub-par start, I do think that the chances of a rebound fade a bit, but by no means is it out of the question. Significant is the fact that Scott Darling is not an up and coming youngster who maybe just is not good enough to play at the NHL. He proved with the Blackhawks that somewhere inside him lies the makings of a capable or even better NHL goalie. It is just a matter of finding it again. So as dismal as the situation might seem right now, each and every start that Scott Darling makes has the potential to be the spark or the turning point that starts him on the path to being what the organization hoped for when they acquired and signed him.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Is it possible that the goaltending situation is going to magically right itself just in time? Or is the team again doomed to a playoff miss at the hands of the goalie position?
2) To what degree do you assign responsibility to Ron Francis, Bill Peters and just bad luck/roll of the dice in terms of 2017-18 but also the previous three years?
3) If faced with the current netminding situation, what would you do for the remainder of 2017-18 and then during the offseason assuming the current path continues?