Before getting to the point where everyone knows this column is headed, let’s get one thing out in the open: playing Scott Darling in Saturday night’s loss to the New York Islanders was the right move. Could Curtis McElhinney have played? Sure, he could have, but at some point the Carolina Hurricanes had to figure out what their plan B was going to be whenever McElhinney returns to earth from his current lights-out form. A game against the Islanders, who have had the Hurricanes’ number all season, in a back-to-back on the road, was the right spot to use for an evaluation.
The Hurricanes have their answer. Plan B can’t be Darling. It is hopefully Petr Mrazek, whenever he returns, but if it isn’t then they need another answer. The Darling redemption tour, admirable as it may have been, can’t continue. Saturday was a chance for Darling to lay claim to the number two spot. He didn’t.
Unlike in years past, when the Hurricanes played with clenched sphincters no matter who was in net, they are playing with noticeably more confidence in front of McElhinney, and to a lesser extent Mrazek, this season. Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton did not forget how to play hockey between Friday and Saturday, yet against the Islanders they looked like they had just met on the B train en route to the rink.
More damning? Five times this season, the Hurricanes have given up more high-danger scoring chances than they’ve generated, per Natural Stat Trick. Three of those came with Darling in net. And it’s worth remembering that Darling has only played less than a month, after a lower-body injury ruled him out of the first three weeks of the season.
It probably is a waste of time to speculate about why that’s the case. The fact is that the Hurricanes play demonstrably worse in front of Darling than they do against either of the other goaltenders, and continuing to play him in spite of that fact is going to cost the Hurricanes points. They can’t afford to squander any more points in pursuit of some other goal.
Rod Brind’Amour came into this season preaching accountability, and while that has perhaps been a bit of a stretched definition at times, he has shown laudable patience and has been rewarded with the emergence of the likes of Lucas Wallmark and Andrei Svechnikov over the past week or so. Part of accountability is rewarding players who are performing well, and it cannot be denied that Curtis McElhinney is performing as well as anyone on the roster right now.
Yes, McElhinney is a career backup. Yes, he’s 35 years old. Yes, he should have had Saturday night off. But the Hurricanes don’t play another back-to-back until the second week of December, and while McElhinney may get a day off here or there, the starter’s job should be his until his play dictates otherwise.
And when it does, which it inevitably will, Mrazek has outplayed Darling to this point and deserves to be the next in line to get a shot. His numbers are skewed by a ghastly penalty kill which, unfortunately for him, started to turn the corner just as he went down with an injury. At even strength, according to Natural Stat Trick’s GSAA, Mrazek has saved 5.5 more goals than Darling this season.
Again: accountability. It’s no time for redemption stories. It’s time for results. McElhinney is getting them, Mrazek deserves a shot to get them, and Darling hasn’t gotten them.
The Hurricanes should be commended for sticking with Darling, even if the impetus was more financial than performance-based, over the summer. They’ve given him chance after chance. For whatever reason, he hasn’t taken those chances, and now they have a goaltender who has.
Darling had proven to be a capable backup in his time in Chicago. But we now have more than a year of evidence that he is what he is. The situation presents itself that the Hurricanes could grab a playoff spot, perhaps even finish top-three in the division, but they need acceptable starting goaltending to get them to that point. Does anyone trust that Darling is that guy? And if the answer is no, do they have another, better option? Yes, they do.
The time for narratives has passed, and the Hurricanes need the types of results they aren’t getting from Scott Darling. It’s time for Carolina to accept the obvious and move on with Darling as a backup, not as a starter anymore.