Ah, goaltending. Everybody’s least favorite part of each and every Carolina Hurricanes team. This year is no different. Ron Francis tried to solidify the goaltending situation this summer, trading a third-round pick to Chicago for the rights to Scott Darling and later inking him to a four-year deal worth over $4 million per season.
Clearly, Darling has not lived up to expectations so far. Among 49 qualified NHL goalies, Darling sits dead last with a .889 save percentage and 41st with a 3.08 goals against average. Cam Ward is at least around league average with a .910 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average. Ward’s 19-9-4 record is much better looking than Darling’s record of 10-16-7. Each goalie has played in 34 games so far, and to this point it is obvious that Ward is the superior goaltender.
Ward has gotten three consecutive starts, picking up two good wins against Philadelphia and New Jersey, and losing a tight 3-2 contest against the very good Winnipeg Jets. With the Hurricanes in the middle of a very tight playoff race with little room for error, the obvious choice would be to give Ward the majority of the starts down the stretch. But that’s where my opinion differs.
Just hear me out.
I understand that Ward’s numbers are far and away better than Darling’s. I understand that the Hurricanes have no room for error if they want to end the playoff drought. But there are more at stakes than making the playoffs this season.
Darling is under contract for three more years after the season. Ward will be an unrestricted free agent in a couple of months. Will Ward be brought back? Who knows. But this is the deal.
When Ron Francis traded for and signed Scott Darling, he committed to him. And let’s be fair here, blaming Francis for looking at one of the league’s best current backup goaltenders at the time and taking a shot and making him a starter was a smart move. If the team didn’t make that deal then the fan base would be equally as annoyed right now. You can not fault Francis for making that move. I guarantee you there are a few other teams that would have rightfully given Darling that contract.
Like I said, Francis committed to Darling for four years. There is no escaping it. The team could buy Darling out, but are they really going to want $1.3 million in dead money on the books for six years? No. Not with guys like Hanifin, Lindholm, Teravainen, Aho, and Skinner needing new deals by the end of next season.
That is why I believe that Darling needs playing time right now. If Darling gets somewhat consistent starts down the stretch, maybe he finds his game and rebuilds his confidence. Maybe he doesn’t. Darling typically goes 7-10 days between starts. That isn’t enough playing time to let a goalie find his game. He needs to play. But if the team buries Darling behind Cam Ward, they are in the same position this summer as they have been for years. Uncertain.
Playing Darling now gives the Hurricanes one last change to see whether or not he can be the guy. If he doesn’t prove to be the guy, at least you know and you can go into the offseason knowing that. But if the team just runs with Ward and doesn’t give Darling another chance, they go into next season without an answer. Do we really think any incoming goaltender can come into this locker room and have full confidence in his job when Cam Ward is sitting in the locker next to his? I don’t really think so.
Darling needs reassurance that the organization believes in him. I think right now it is all in his head. He needs to regain his confidence in himself.
I’m not going to dive into any fancy stats or anything like that. Like I said earlier, we can all see who the better goalie is right now. But Darling has talent. You don’t get a contract worth $16 million without reason. The team just has to stay committed.
Even if they decided to move on from Darling this summer, who realistically do they get? Ward would likely be back. But do they sign a starter if Ward is on the roster? Hellebuyuck is a RFA, and with the way he is playing there is no way that he hits free agency. Robin Lehner? Meh. Jaroslav Halak? No thanks. Maybe Raanta, but he is hot and I don’t see Arizona letting him walk. There aren’t that many appealing options in free agency as a starter. And I don’t see the team moving valuable assets to acquire a goalie in a trade when I believe they clearly need to spend those assets elsewhere.
I’ve been on this boat all year. Yes, I know I’m underwater at this point. But I believe in Scott Darling and I don’t believe that he’s going anywhere. It is just up to the Hurricanes to remain committed to him and to help him get through his struggles.