The Chicago Blackhawks made the call Friday morning, assigning goaltender Scott Darling to the AHL's Rockford IceHogs. Despite leaving a positive impression during his three-game stint with the team, Darling is heading back to the minors to keep polishing his game.
The move means that the Blackhawks will be going back to their old goalie tandem of Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta, and signals the former will be ready to play Saturday when the team visits the Toronto Maple Leafs. It also means Darling will be getting steady AHL playing time instead of chilling on the bench. Here are some thoughts on the situation:
(a) For me, Darling has surpassed Raanta as the most intriguing goaltender in the organization beyond Crawford. He brings size that's increasingly necessary for sticking in the NHL, and while he showed some clear flaws (five hole!) in the win over Ottawa on Thursday, there was also a lot to like. When Darling stays home and uses his size to fill the crease, like we saw in the shootout, he's a really tough guy to beat. Compared to Raanta, I see a guy who's going to need less work to develop into a high-level starting goalie.
(b) The Darling demotion could be seen as a positive sign for his future chances with the team. The guy clearly needs reps to improve several aspects of his game, and he's far more likely to get those opportunities as the top guy in Rockford rather than backing up Crawford. If the 'Hawks view Darling as a potential successor or supplement to Crawford at some point in the near future, those games in Rockford should do more for him than watching NHL games beside Quenneville on the bench.
(c) Raanta is running out of opportunities to really establish himself in Chicago. He probably won't play much going forward other than back-to-backs, and it seems like Darling is the preferred choice should Crawford go down for a lengthy period again. I don't know how the guy is going to have the opportunities to improve and build confidence without steady playing time, and at this point, he's running out of chances to get it in Chicago.
(d) With all that said, this plan makes perfect sense to me. Even if you prefer Darling to Raanta as a long-term piece, it makes sense. Give Darling the extra reps in Rockford while Crawford plants his skates back into the NHL starting spot, and let Raanta be the emergency option should anything happen. Darling gets to work on reaching his greater upside, while Raanta's presence hardly matters with Crawford starting most nights. If it all works out, you'll be able to sign Darling cheaply as an RFA next summer and enter 2015-16 with as much goalie confidence as the club has had in years. Raanta, meanwhile, remains on a cheap deal through next season, and gives the team some flexibility.
In the end, I think this is the natural culmination of a positive situation for the team. Crawford is still the top guy in Chicago, Raanta is a serviceable-if-underwhelming backup, and Darling is an intriguing upside play who needs the chance to improve. With the current set up, it's a fine balance between getting wins in the present and building for the future. It's also, as others have said, a good problem to have.
At the very least, the idea of losing Crawford for a few weeks doesn't seem as scary anymore.