On Friday afternoon, I happened upon a great Canes hockey conversation Twitter concerning the state of the Hurricanes goaltending and the best path forward. One of the silver linings for me right now is seeing how many core fans are still passionate and engaged despite the team’s struggles.
With a search seemingly already underway (see Sunday Canes Chronicle with a few articles on candidates that the Hurricanes are allegedly talking to), Hurricanes will hopefully have a new general manager in place shortly after the end of the regular season and maybe even a bit sooner. One of the big decisions for the new general manager will be that very same goaltending situation for the 2018-19 season.
Coming off a 2017-18 season that continues a long run during which goaltending has been an Achilles’ heel, the situation is complex. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers my 2 cents on the situation and the best path(s) forward.
The contract situation
At a contract level, the situation is eerily (and painfully similar to the summer of 2016). That offseason saw Cam Ward coming off of his contract and scheduled to become a free agent, and Eddie Lack coming off a rough first season in a Hurricanes uniform and under contract for two more seasons.
Fast forward to the end of the 2017-18 season and situation is quite similar. Cam Ward is again coming off of a contract and scheduled to become a free agent on July 1 if not re-signed before then. And Scott Darling is coming off of a rough first season in a Hurricanes uniform and under contract for three more years.
There are couple modest but significant differences. This time around, Ward is technically coming off of a season when he was supposed to be the backup (though he assumed the starter’s role in mid December) and is also coming off at decent if not better season (especially when graded as a backup). In 2016, Ward was coming off of a tough campaign just like Lack. The other difference is the amount of money involved. In 2016, Lack had two years remaining at $2.75 million per year for $5.5 million total. This time around, Darling has three years remaining at an average of $4 million per year for a total of $12 million. The term is an additional year, and the dollar amount remaining is more than double.
Especially if the Hurricanes fall out of the playoff hunt completely, I think it makes sense to give Scott Darling the lion’s share (everything except half of the remaining back-to-backs?) of the remaining 2017-18 workload. While each game remaining does have some role in grading Darling’s 2017-18 season and evaluating him for the future, in my book we have mostly reached the point where Darling’s 2017-18 season was a failure. A massive run of 9 or 10 wins that pushes the team into the playoffs would change that, but any other version of ‘he played better down the stretch’ (after the playoffs were out of reach) does not buy much in my end of season evaluation. While those desperately seeking half full would have some ammunition, for me, 8-10 starts after the fate of the season was more or less decided will not overshadow 5 months of struggles. In fact, one of the risks is that a short burst of a few good starts clouds the picture and becomes fool’s gold that impacts preparation for the 2018-19 season
In terms of assessing Scott Darling’s 2017-18 season thus far, it just has not been good enough. The basic statistics say so. The more advanced statistics say so. The eye test says so. And the lack of confidence that he generally breeds right now also says so. And with possibly minor adjustments from the last 14 games of the season, that is how he will enter the offseason.
If Darling was scheduled to become a free agent this summer, the situation would be simple. But with three years of contract and $12 million committed, the contract situation makes things much more complex.
Could Scott Darling rebound?
Yes. Definitely yes. Important to note is that Scott Darling is not a young prospect who has not and might never prove that he is capable of winning at the NHL level. He proved in Chicago that he could play well and win at the NHL level, and because of that it is definitely possible that he does it again.
But that’s not exactly the right question…
The question is not whether Darling could rebound after an offseason to reset and with a fresh start. Further, the question is not whether he will rebound in 2018-19. That binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is simply placing a random bet and rolling dice with whatever odds as if you are at a small stakes craps table and have a bunch more chips left to play with if the first roll fails.
You only get one roll for picking a starting goalie for the 2018-19 season.
Given that, the right question is trying to assign a probability to a Scott Darling rebound in 2018-19 and comparing that to the probability of getting a solid season from another goalie. On top of that, there is a layer of complexity in terms of cost/reward with Darling being under contract for three more years. If the right decision personnel-wise is to move on, there is still the cost in terms of eating salary and/or giving up something to move him or possibly even the need to just buy him out.
So netting it out, the right question to ask is whether the odds of a solid season in net is more likely from a Darling rebound or a complete reset with a new netminder but also considering the cost of each option.
And you only get one try
The other challenge is the importance of the starting goalie role and the difficulty of changing course mid-season. When a forward struggles it is MUCH easier to just try again. A team has 12 forwards that play regularly, so it is easy enough to just cut ice time or role a bit and slot him farther down the lineup. An underperforming forward can still be useful in a lesser role, and a team has multiple other options already on the roster to back fill a hole left by an underperformer. But at goalie, a team has only two players at the NHL level. At least one of those players must be capable at the NHL level. And as Canes fans know all too well, if one of them is not capable, it makes for a nearly impossible Achilles’ heel to overcome. What’s more, a team must get this right over the offseason. More often than not, the only goalies available during the first half of the season is another underperforming goalie and therefore a dice roll.
More direct to the Hurricanes situation, if the Hurricanes decide to bet on a Scott Darling rebound, they very much could be betting the 2018-18 season and playoff hopes on that rebound. If Darling is retained and does not rebound, that has the potential to decide the fate of the 2018-19 season.
Enter Cam Ward
Lost in the team’s struggles and the goalie situation in total is the fact that Cam Ward had a strong season in the role he was supposed fill. I borrowed from this article a bit for my ‘pros and cons’ article last week that also featured Elias Lindholm and Joakim Nordstrom.
That article discussed the pros and cons of bringing Cam Ward back as the backup goalie for the 2018-19 season. The key starting point is the fact that Ward is 19-11-4. If you project that over the 68 games played thus far, the pace nets 84 points. Those 84 points would have the Hurricanes sitting atop the Metropolitan Division standings. Let me say that again – Cam Ward’s record thus far for 2017-18 projects to a division-leading pace. Ward’s underlying numbers are not scintillating at .907 for save percentage and 2.70 for goals against average, but if simply grading him as a backup who needs to be only competent, he easily rates well for doing that job in 2017-18.
If one evaluates Cam Ward in a vacuum as a backup goalie for 2017-18, I do not see any way that he would not rate favorably and be a priority to re-sign.
But Ward’s consideration as a backup is NOT standalone
But Ward’s role is not a standalone thing. Ward’s role instead must fit into the broader goalie situation for the team.
Could Cam Ward be the starter at least until/unless Darling regains his game?
In a word, no. At 34 years old, I do not see Ward as a viable all-season starter. He has proven in 2017-18 that he can still step into that role for a stretch which is valuable to spell an injured starter or fill in during an injury, but my read is that he is past the point in his career when he can do this for 55-60 games. In fact, his statistical splits suggest that the backup role might be perfect for him at this stage of his career. With 3 or more days rest between starts, Ward is 11-3-2 with a .915 save percentage. With fewer than 3 days rest, Ward is 8-8-2 with an .898 save percentage.
More succinctly, at this stage of his career I think Ward is a great fit for a backup but not likely capable of excelling in a regular starting role.
The mismatched puzzle pieces and a puzzle that does not fit both
When I consider Scott Darling as a rebound candidate and Cam Ward as an excellent backup option but likely not more than that, I think the two goalies do not fit in the same tandem for 2018-19.
Scenario 1: Give Scott Darling at least one more year to rebound
Especially because of the $12 million contractual commitment, I think one could make a case for giving Scott Darling a chance to rebound after a summer off and a chance to reset for a fresh start.
But in such a scenario, I think an absolute requirement is having another goalie in the mix who is also capable of rising up and becoming the #1 if Darling falters again. For me, a plan that includes trying Darling again without a plan B in tow is a high-risk dice roll on the 2018-19 season. I think if the team goes with Darling, it must also have another goalie in place who also has the potential to be a 55-60-game #1. Per my comments above, I do not think Ward is that guy.
Scenario 2: Cut your losses and move on with Ward as a backup and a new starter
While I do not like Ward as a #2 behind a risky Darling, I do like him as a backup behind a higher-probability #1. That suggests cutting losses on Darling, moving him one way or another and then adding a new #1.
I am already on record as thinking it could make a ton of sense to eat losses and return Scott Darling to the Blackhawks:
You heard it here first…Scott Darling goes back to #Blackhawks this summer with #Canes retaining maximum 1/2 of salary. With Crawford situation, Hawks need another option, $2M salary works & it is where rebound seems most plausible. #Canes
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) March 9, 2018
I really think that the risk of Scott Darling combined with the limitations of Cam Ward at this stage of his career really make for an either or decision.
As I said previously, the irony of the situation is that Cam Ward survived multiple years of not living up to expectations largely because of his big contract. He then somehow managed to survive again when he signed a new two-year deal coming off a sub-par season. The situation with Scott Darling, the fact that Ward’s contract expires this summer and the fact that the decision makers this summer do not have long-term ties to Ward actually has the potential to trigger Ward’s departure ironically after a season in which he excelled in his role.
What about Alex Nedeljkovic?
With Alex Nedeljkovic winning in front of a high-powered Charlotte Checkers team, more people are thinking that he could be part of the mix for the 2018-19 season.
There is always the potential for a young player to be thrust into a role and just seize the opportunity. With Nedeljkovic’s history in big games, I think that is an interesting possibility for Nedeljkovic. As such, I do hope the team gives him a few games if an injury creates a logical opening in 2018-19 to see what happens.
But that said, in terms of measuring his progression or readiness based on his track record, the start of the 2018-19 season is premature. Nedeljkovic struggled in his transition to the professional level in 2016-17. While he has been better in 2017-18, the people I talk to who track the Checkers closely suggest that while he is better, the real story is the team in front of him. The Checkers are near the top of the AHL in scoring and are winning with offense. Nedeljkovic’s 27-11-2 record is impressive, but even with a recent shutout streak, his save percentage checks in at a modest .904.
So getting to the point, I like Alex Nedeljkovic’s potential to be a pleasant surprise in 2018-19 if he finds his way into the net in Raleigh because of an injury. But he is not at a stage of development where he is legitimately part of an offseason plan to man the nets at the NHL level in 2018-19.
So if the Hurricanes do look externally, who is available?
One big question is who might be available this summer if the Hurricanes do decide to look externally.
The list of available goalies is not a big one, but the positive is that the number of shoppers should also be small. The Hurricanes were literally the only loser in game of goalie musical chairs this summer. Dallas adding Ben Bishop, Las Vegas netting Marc-Andre Fleury, Calgary landing Mike Smith and Arizona getting Antti Raanta are all set after their work last summer. The emergence of Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg also takes another team off the shopper list.
As such, the teams likely to be shopping for a new goalie this summer is likely only to include bottom-feeders from the 2017-18. Buffalo and Arizona are scheduled to see Raanta and Lehner respectively become free agents. The New York Islanders also had issues in net in 2017-18. That sets up what could be a fairly small game of musical chairs this summer.
The options via free agency as I see it are Robin Lehner, Antti Raanta (if not re-signed by Arizona) and Petr Mrazek. I will save detailed evaluations for another day, but worth noting is that that Lehner and Raanta differ from Lack and Darling in that they have experience in an NHL starting role. Mrazek does to a certain degree too though his was more of a split with Jimmy Howard in Detroit.
Next verse same as the first
With a new general manager, the Carolina Hurricanes will again enter the summer coming off of a sub-par season goaltending-wise that might well have cost the team a playoff berth. The situation will again be complex and the stakes high for building a winner for the 2018-19 season.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Are you inclined to ride Scott Darling down the stretch and then also hope for a rebound in 2018-19? Or are you inclined to somehow cut losses and move on?
2) Do you agree that Scott Darling and Cam Ward are unworkable together? If so, how do you resolve that situation?
3) More generally, what would you do at the goalie position over the offseason if you were the Hurricanes new general manager?