We’ve taken a look at the wingers, centers and defenseman for the Carolina Hurricanes heading into the 2017-18 season. Justin Lape takes a look at the goalie tandem for the ‘Canes.
Needing to stabilize a position that had been a long-running question mark, this past offseason Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis made a daring move, acquiring the rights to former Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling and then signing him to a four-year contract with an average annual value of $4.15 million. Simply put: there’s a new sheriff in town.
Last season, the Hurricanes finished 26th in team save percentage and allowed 2.8 goals per game, worse than the league average. Cam Ward played too much, Eddie Lack couldn’t find much consistency, and Francis’ hand was forced, sending Lack packing in a deal with the Calgary Flames for...not much, really. With a new look in net, there is a hint of optimism in the air for the future prospects of the ‘Canes goaltending situation.
2016-17 Stats: 18-5-5, .924 save percentage, 2.38 goals against average
Acquired: Trade with Chicago, 4/28/17
Darling was brought in with one charge: solidify the Hurricanes’ goaltending situation. He thrived in a back-up role in Chicago last season and it was only a matter of time until he got his shot with a team that allowed him to be a starter. He posted above average stats over 32 games backing up Corey Crawford. Now, he’s expected to be the man for the ‘Canes this season.
But it’s not fair to expect him to waltz in on day one and play lights-out hockey. Darling needs time. He will have to get acquainted to playing behind a new defense and become acquainted to Bill Peters’ system. The early season nerves may lead to a shaky start in October but once he’s settled in, Darling should thrive.
He doesn’t have to be perfect and an immediate Vezina candidate. In fact, if Darling simply provides league-average goaltending - which would be a step down from what he did last season - the Hurricanes could be a playoff team. The team has structured reliable defensive pairings and a talented top-9 forward core to provide enough stability in front of Darling. He should thrive and 30-35 wins in his first full season should be achievable in 2017-18.
2016-17 Stats: 26-22-12, .905 save percentage, 2.69 goals against average
Acquired: 1st round (30th overall) pick, 2002 NHL Draft
The longest-serving member of the Hurricanes is a terrific guy through his community outreach programs and respect for fans and media. He’s given a lot to the franchise and has stuck with the team through some pretty bad seasons.
With that said, Cam Ward was largely hung out to dry last season, playing 61 games and wearing down over the course of the year. He played well the first half of the season but with Lack first unreliable and then injured for two months, Ward broke down. The graph shows his save percentage game by game, and looks a bit like a ski jump. Playing every day clearly limited Ward’s performance, but Peters had no real choice but to ride him for months at a time, culminating in his highest number of starts in six years.
Now, with Darling in the fold, a smaller sample of games may benefit the veteran goalie. Ward turns 34 in February, and has plenty of miles on his pads through his 12 seasons in the NHL. He’s shown flashes of brilliance over the past few seasons, but the more he’s played, the less effective he’s been.
Ward should be better this season in a smaller sample size. Much like Darling, he will not need to be a star in net. Improving on his save percentage and making a few more saves on the glove side could pay big dividends for the team. If Ward starts 30 games, he should be fine. Any more than that and the Canes will be pressing their luck again.
2016-17 Stats: Split time between NHL/AHL, 2.57 goals against average, .911 save percentage (at AHL level)
Acquired: Free agent signing, 7/1/17
Jeremy Smith will be the veteran goalie for the Charlotte Checkers this season as Tom McCollum, who carried the Checkers on his back and into the Calder Cup playoffs while on loan last season, returned to the Flames organization and was then traded to Detroit. Smith has experience at the AHL and NHL level, most recently as a member of the Colorado Avalanche organization.
Smith’s stats dropped at the AHL level last season, after recording a 2.02 goals against average and a .934 save percentage with the Providence Bruins a season before. However, even with Smith’s experience, don’t expect him to be a savior for the Canes if one of Darling or Ward goes down with an injury. Smith got his first taste of the NHL last season with the Avs, and it didn’t go well. In ten games, he had a 3.54 goals against average and a .888 save percentage.
Smith may receive a majority of the starts in Charlotte but he won’t have to be outstanding. Charlotte’s offense is significantly improved from a year ago with the additions of Julien Gauthier, Warren Foegele and Nicolas Roy, among others. If he posts similar stats compared to his time with the San Antonio Rampage, the Checkers should be in fine shape.
It’s far from certain as to which young netminder will share the net with Smith in Charlotte. Alex Nedeljkovic had a rough first professional season within the organization, spending time in the ECHL and posting a 3.40 goals against average and a .881 save percentage with Charlotte. He wasn’t able to remain consistent and would allow goals in bunches.
20-year-old Callum Booth will begin his first professional season after developing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Booth is reminiscent of Darling, using his big body and frame to keep pucks out of the net. Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci might be apprehensive about starting Booth right out of the gate, but expect Booth to see time in a Checkers uniform at some point. The Checkers goaltending situation was a rotating carousel last season and it looks to continue to be so heading into 2017-18.