For just a couple games, everything was okay with the Hurricanes netminding. Both Scott Darling and Cam Ward good enough in strong games by the skaters in front of them for two weekend wins. And the Hurricanes massive seven-goal outburst in Tuesday’s win almost made Cam Ward’s play irrelevant in terms of assessing the game.
But lurking in the past was the monster that has been Hurricanes netminding both in recent history in prior years and also during the 2017-18 season. And that monster reared its ugly head in another tough outing for Scott Darling in Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Devils. If you missed the game, you can suffer through the game and the goals against in my recap. The short version is that Scott Darling had another tough night giving up five goals on only 22 shots including three where I think you could make a case that he should have had them. The New Jersey Devils looked faster all night, but the Hurricanes did a decent job of limiting chances such that this game could easily have been a 2-2 game headed to overtime with a point in hand and another in play.
With crunch time officially here, the Hurricanes sitting right at the playoff cut line and only 24 games remaining, the burning question is where to go from here in terms of goaltending.
The starting point
My baseline for where we are right now goes like this:
* Cam Ward has had a handful of horrid outings himself, but in total, he has been serviceable if not better. His .912 save percentage is respectable even if not spectacular and his 17-7-3 record is easily playoff pace.
* Scott Darling has still yet to truly find his game. He has had a handful of solid outings but nothing close to a run of them in a long time.
* Ward is 33 years old and coming off of a 2016-17 season that saw him play reasonably well for a stretch but then completely collapse and never recover when Peters rode him into the ground in the middle of the season.
The long-term for Scott Darling
The Carolina Hurricanes are currently committed to Scott Darling for three more years years at pretty much a full starter’s salary at $4.15 million per year. Increasingly, many are of the opinion that he just cannot work as a starting goalie. I think that is overdone. Darling is not an up and coming young player who has not yet proven he can be successful at the NHL level. He can be. He was. Granted the role was different as a backup and/or injury fill in as a starter, but he had a long enough run of solid NHL netminding that one has to give him credit for being capable of it. Whether he just needs a reset in the offseason, a kick in the pants, a pat on the back or whatever is anyone’s guess, but I do not buy the argument that it is completely impossible for him to rebound. While his stock is significantly lower after a tough two-thirds at least of 2017-18 and there are no guarantees what years two through four on Darling’s four-year deal will mean is a topic for another time.
In the here and now the Carolina Hurricanes are still very much in playoff contention and need to figure out how to win as many of their last 24 games as possible. Goaltending will undoubtedly play a significant role. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe will explore that tricky and potentially treacherous path forward.
Could Scott Darling be good enough?
Yes. As bad as Thursday’s loss and some others have been and as much as Scott Darling seems to be fighting it right now, it is possible, even with inconsistent play, that he proves to be good enough. If Ward continues to be at least adequate if not better as the starter, the team will be looking for no more than six starts from Darling. Though more would be appreciated, a .500 record from a backup is good enough. So if some combination of Darling playing well or the team just driving a win can happen two or three times out of five or six starts, that could be good enough. Thursday does not generate a ton of optimism, but Darling was good enough and better actually over the weekend to collect a win. The team just needs to find a couple more of those.
Is just riding Cam Ward a possibility?
As we get closer to the end of the year, the question increasingly becomes whether the team can just ride Cam Ward to the finish line?
Cam Ward’s 2016-17
There are number of factors that play into this. An important starting point is considering Ward’s 2016-17 season. With Eddie Lack either injured or incapable of posting a good start and Bill Peters unwilling to trust or even just try Michael Leighton (after he actually had one really good start to go with one bad start), Peters rode Ward game in and game out through pretty much a full quarter of the 2016-17 season. Ward found a rhythm for part of that stretch, but when he hit the wall, he hit it hard and never recovered. Ward is suddenly 33 years old, so trying that path again for 20 plus games seems really risky.
A lighter work load thus far for 2017-18
Worth noting however is that Ward’s work load for the front part of the year was significantly different. Through 58 games, Ward has played in exactly half of those. Compare that to the 2016-17 season when he played 61 of 82 for 75 percent. Even if Ward played out the string on the 2017-18 season, he would reach only 53 games which is still eight shy of his 2016-17 total. That said, it is important to recognize that the issue is often more about spacing and rest than it is about sheer quantity. A goalie who is generally rested can look sluggish trying to play three games in four days regardless of his his season total, so it is not as simple as looking at Ward’s maximum 53 games and believing he can just play out from here because of that.
The logical split per the schedule
Another thing to consider is the schedule. Finding a rhythm and playing every other day maybe with an extra day off here and there is one thing. Grinding through busy stretches with regular sets of back-to-backs especially with travel is another thing (and also what likely did him in for 2016-17). The schedule in total is not friendly in terms of riding a starter, and maybe even more significantly, the toughest stretch comes in late March which would make it risky to arrive there without having a backup capable of winning a game or two.
The Hurricanes have six back-to-back sets left, and each and every one of them includes travel. For a team that had a clear starter but also a backup that they trusted, that would pretty much be the split. The starter would get 18 reasonably spaced starts, and the backup would split the back-to-backs to take six starts for a nice 75%/25% split.
Trying to steal a few more starts
When I work through the schedule in more detail seeking favorable opportunities to get Ward another start or two without wearing him out physically, I find two opportunities to steal an extra start by playing Ward in both halves of a back-to-back set. Next weekend’s Friday/Saturday pair against the Penguins and then Red Wings actually makes sense. The Hurricanes have four days off before that pair of games and then two days off afterward. Ward would be rested heading into the set and then gets two days off afterward. Similarly, the back-to-back set on March 12 and 13 is book-ended by some rest days. The Hurricanes have three days off on either side of that set.
Otherwise, the tail end of March is busy and not overly conducive to running Ward straight through it without having him hit a wall again. Further, if Peters passes over Darling for the two back-to-back sets mentioned, Darling would enter late March having played once in the past month. The potential for that being a rusty start seems high.
My rough math suggests that the Hurricanes need someone else to play goalie at least four and ideally more like six games down the stretch.
Could an AHLer be a better option?
I have seen some clamoring for the Hurricanes to recall Alex Nedeljkovic and give him Darling’s starts. Nedeljkovic seems to have that big game moxy such that maybe he responds to the pressure and catches lightning in a bottle with the adrenaline rush for just long enough to give the Hurricanes the couple good starts they need. He managed two shutout periods in his NHL debut last season, so who knows…just maybe he thrives under the pressure.
But I am extremely skeptical. Nedeljkovic struggled at the AHL level in his 2016-17 transition to the professional ranks. And while his win-loss record and play in total have improved during the 2017-18 season, it is not as if he is making a case for being NHL-ready just yet. His .903 save percentage is only marginally better than Darling’s .894 save percentage except at a lower level. Further, the couple reports I get from people who watch the Checkers closely do not consider him to be NHL-ready as he continues to work the kinks out. So sure there is a dice roll to be had by trying anyone different with as much as Darling has struggled, but the probability of Nedeljkovic being meaningfully better is very low.
Jeremy Smith could be interesting. He is a veteran AHLer who at least has a few stints sitting on an NHL bench in addition to 10 games of NHL experience. But Smith has not had a great year and has more or less lost the AHL starting job to Nedeljkovic, so his game is not trending in a great direction right now.
In the name of thoroughness, Callum Booth is the other option in the organization right now. But as a player with exactly one game of AHL experience, he is an even bigger dice roll than the other two options.
Could Francis make a trade to upgrade the position?
There are a couple different varieties for this option.
Trying to wipe the slate clean
The most significant would be if Francis were to somehow peddle Darling and the three years remaining on his pricey deal in a bigger deal. Though something like this is not impossible, I cannot imagine the market for a goalie sporting a sub-.900 save percentage and three years of contract at $4 million is a great one. Such a deal would have to be a weir combination of the Canes taking a bad contract back and/or paying in futures for someone to take Darling’s deal.
To be clear, I think Francis should creatively look for options to unload Darling, add short-term backup goalie help and maybe most significantly set the team up to start fresh again during the offseason. Sure there is a chance that Darling will rebound, a reasonable one even. But I cannot imagine there are many people who think that the risk/reward ratio specifically for the Hurricanes on three years of Darling at $4.15 million per year is a good one right now. But again, this deal is incredibly difficult to pull off and probably even more difficult at the trade deadline when most deals focus on playoff teams looking for upgrades.
Adding short-term help
I think what might be more interesting could be Francis adding another backup goalie to the mix on a short-term, rental basis. The idea would be to carry three goalies for the last month of the season and more or less shelf Darling for the remainder of the 2017-18 season in favor of someone else. Any suggestion will certainly lead to discussion about the possible long-term impact on Darling and his relationship with the team. Might such a move create ill will? Could it further hurt his confidence? Etc.
While I do think the ill will thing is something to consider for a player who is currently under contract for three more years, I would not worry in the slightest about the confidence issue. We are months down the current path of trying to work Darling into the mix and hoping that helps him get his feet under him. It has not happened. Whatever damage might be done to his confidence cannot be significantly different from where he is right now.
Is there a goalie rental option out there who could give the Hurricanes 5-6 solid starts whose contract is up at the end of the 2017-18 season? Would Francis consider going this route to push for the 2017-18 playoffs despite the risk of creating ill will going forward?
What I’m watching
Regardless of Darling’s play, Ward was already slotted to play the second half of the back-to-back on Friday and very likely to also play on Sunday. But next weekend offers an interesting decision point for Peters and an early indication on just how much Peters might be inclined to start playing to win today again and again. As noted above, the Hurricanes play a back to back with travel next weekend but have four days off beforehand and two days off afterward. My hunch is that Peters will use the rest to play Ward in both halves of that set if he plays even reasonably well on Friday and says can go on Saturday. Also as noted above, I think that individual instance of riding Ward makes some sense based on the rest around it, but it also has the potential of starting Peters down a slippery slope.
Playing Bill Peters and Ron Francis
Bill Peters: If I was at the helm of the Hurricanes and if Ward plays reasonably well this weekend, I would use the rest to play Ward in both halves of next week’s back-to-back. I would also be thinking about also riding Ward through the other back-to-back set with rest around it. But I would be really careful with just hitching the cart to him and trying to get 22 or 23 out of the last 24 from Ward. When he hit the wall last year, he hit is hard. Subject to being reevaluated, my thinking as head coach of the Hurricanes right now is that I must somehow get four starts out of someone other than Ward.
Ron Francis: From Francis’ perspective, I think he mostly made this bed and will now have to lie in it. That said, I would creatively explore trade options. The potential to move Darling in a player for player trade seems incredibly low right now. But despite the potential complications, I would at least explore options to add another goalie whose contract ends after the 2017-18 season if I thought said goalie would be a significant upgrade for the 4-6 starts that the Hurricanes ideally need from a backup. I just think if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs by 2-3 points which is very possible and Francis as the general manager did not consider all possible options to upgrade his team that it is a miss considering the cost would be low.
If I had to guess…
I think Peters is likely very close to hitching the team to Cam Ward and taking his chances that his lighter workload for the first half of the season gives him just enough gas to get to the finish line before running out of fuel.
The Jofa bucket helmet — It’s time!
I knew when I finally mustered the courage to tell the story of the curse on the Hurricanes goalies that no one would take it seriously. But how about now? Does it really seem like that bad of an idea to at least start lobbying the team for giving it a try. It’s just one practice, and what could it hurt at this point?