Another year has gone by, another postseason missed, and yet another offseason revolving around goaltending.
While having the number two overall selection and the potential trade of Jeff Skinner has developed a buzz around the fanbase one aspect that is once again present is the fact the Hurricanes goaltending is still an issue.
A team goals against average of 3.09 put them in the same group as the Islanders, Sabres, and Senators all teams who missed the playoffs by a long shot. Now, I know goals-against average isn’t the best stat when evaluating goaltending but factor the 3.09 GAA along with a save percentage of .897, well below the league-wide average of .912, and its clear that for yet another season the Hurricanes goaltending has let them down.
Since 2013 the Hurricanes have tried a variety of different goalies all with one common trend: they’re all career backups. Anton Khudobin in 2013, Eddie Lack in 2015 and Scott Darling in 2017 were all backup goalies when the Canes either signed or traded for them and while the notion of acquiring a backup and transitioning him to full fledge starter isn’t unusual (see Edmonton, Arizona etc.) for whatever reason that trend hasn’t worked out for Carolina.
So what can the Canes do now? There are no big ticket free agent goalies who are proven starters with the cream of the crop being restricted free agent Philip Grubauer, who has been a career backup with the Washington Capitals. The Hurricanes are in a pickle and if they continue to swing and miss on bringing in goalies via free agency and trade eventually the organization will have to take a good hard look at itself and how they evaluate goalies.
The organization has put itself in a bind and while sticking with Darling after what happened last season would raise eyebrows, it’s a necessary risk. Before arriving at Carolina Darling had a .923 career save percentage with the Blackhawks in 75 career games played. In 43 games with the Hurricanes, he posted a .888 save percentage and saw that .923 mark drop to .910. Scott Darling is a heck of a lot better than what he showed his first year and that is fact. A change behind the bench and within the team’s philosophy should do wonders mentally and a change in offseason preparation both off and on the ice will do wonders physically. Going from playing an average of 25 games per year to 40, 50, 60 plus games a year is a huge jump and that’s an adjustment that takes time.
Let’s say Darling gets his second chance the question then shifts to who should be brought to back him up? As much as Cam Ward has impacted the franchise it would do the organization and whoever they decide to bring in to play goal a favor by letting Cam go. Moving on from Ward would allow the organization to embrace a new era. No one can take away what Ward has done for this franchise but, the time is now. In my opinion, bringing back Ward would be more detrimental than giving Darling a second chance. Re-signing Ward sends a message to Darling or whoever else is brought in that there’s a lack of confidence in your ability and also that there’s a possibility Cam Ward will take away minutes from you. That can have a disastrous mental affect on a goalie trying to develop from backup to starter.
With that being said there are options for the Hurricanes to pursue. Carter Hutton is the best the UFA market has to offer while on the RFA side Philip Grubauer remains an intriguing option. Outside of them, veterans like Kari Lehtonen, Jaro Halak, and Jonathan Bernier could all be options as well.
Changes are coming in Raleigh. It’s hard to project what Tom Dundon and company have planned in goal. The canes don’t have anyone in the wings ready for a full-time NHL gig, Cam Ward is a free agent, and Scott Darling has a lot to prove. One can hope if Darling comes back the team in front of him will look different and with those changes both on the ice and behind the bench, it’ll help him mentally. Another key component if Darling comes back is who’ll be behind him. If the Hurricanes do seek a top free agent like Hutton or Grubauer it could help foster a potential 1a 1b tandem in goal while bringing a savvy veteran like Lehtonen or Bernier could provide a safety net if Darling struggles or goes down with an injury.
Bottom line the Hurricanes have a lot of questions in goal to answer, but fortunately, there are a lot of options. What they choose to go with remains to be seen… buckle up.