The Carolina Hurricanes’ history of hindrance by poor goaltending appears to have mercifully taken a turn for the much, much better with the signing of Scott Darling. After three seasons as a fan-favorite backup/depth goalie with the Chicago Blackhawks, Darling’s merit as an NHL starter shone too bright for the Hawks’ management to keep him a secret any longer, and he’ll get his shot with the Canes.
Darling in Chicago
Darling signed with Chicago in the summer of 2014 after an incredible journey through the minor leagues (read more about that here). He was meant to add depth to their roster behind Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta, but an injury to Crawford gave Darling the chance to see NHL time, which he spent overtaking Raanta on the depth chart to earn full-time backup duties behind Crawford.
Darling starred in relief during first round the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, during which he rescued the Hawks from disaster in Nashville and helped guide them to the conference semifinals, where Crawford took the reins once more. Since then, Darling has been a more than reliable backup, playing 29+ games and posting .915 and .924 save percentages in respective years as a full-season backup.
With Darling’s most impressive statistical campaign coinciding with a contract year, Chicago GM Stan Bowman’s hands were tied; the Blackhawks’ tricky cap situation meant saying goodbye to one of his two solid netminders. Unsurprisingly, Bowman stuck with what has gotten him this far, Carolina got Darling’s negotiating rights for a third-round pick, and May 6th saw Darling and the Canes agree to a four-year deal.
Darling in Carolina
It’s fairly obvious what role Darling looks to fill with the Hurricanes. A lack of consistent goaltending has held this team back for the better part of a decade, and it appears that management and Cam Ward understand that they are better served with someone else in the crease on a nightly basis. Even just decent goaltending would be enough of an improvement to likely see Carolina through to the playoffs; is Darling going to be the guy to provide it?
It’s impossible to say. But everything he’s shown so far bodes well for Darling’s time with the Canes. The unpredictable nature of goaltending aside, there are some benchmarks to look at. Our own Brett Finger did some fine work back in May regarding comparable goaltending situations (i.e. Cam Talbot from NYR to Edmonton, Martin Jones from LA to San Jose, etc.) and how the players fared with different teams. Darling’s numbers look similar to, if not better than, each of the former backups in their final year before moving, and if their stats as first-time starters are anything to go by, the transition should be quite smooth.
Nobody expects Vezina-quality goaltending from Darling (at least not yet), but he’ll shoulder the oh-so-heavy burden of at least beating out Ward’s numbers, for starters. It’s not unreasonable to expect somewhere around a .918-.920 save %, a 2.50-2.60 GAA, and three or four shutouts from Darling this season, though a hitch in his adjustment to a new team could see his numbers dip further.
Darling’s move reminds me of another comparable: Frederik Andersen of the Maple Leafs. Andersen was previously a starter with the Anaheim Ducks, but put up similar numbers to what one could expect from Darling (despite a higher GAA), even after early struggles, en route to leading his new team back to the playoffs. Darling could follow a similar path with the Canes; he’ll likely hit a few rough patches early on before finding consistency and confidence in his game as a starter.
Despite the unknowns and risks of signing a number-one goalie who has never started for a full NHL season before, Darling is without question the future of the Hurricanes goaltending, even with Ward lingering as his backup. Darling’s (and Carolina’s) ceiling is high, and though it’s hard to say what the floor will be, there isn’t much reason not to expect good things from the new number thirty-three.