The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t have the cap space to re-sign Scott Darling this offseason, but even if they did, there was still a problem. How could he really come back as a No. 2? The past three seasons showed Darling is too good not to get a chance to be a starter in the NHL, and now it’s here with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Darling signed a four-year, $16.6 million contract with his new team Friday after the Hawks shipped him to Carolina for a draft pick. The goalie still could’ve hit free agency on July 1, but wasted no time getting a deal. He’s since told reporters he’s “super excited” about the opportunity with the up-and-coming Hurricanes, and you can see why.
With that contract, the Hurricanes have made a clear statement that they hope Darling will be their main starter going forward. Eddie Lack and Cam Ward are still under contract for the 2017-18 season at a combined $6.05 million, but a lackluster 2016-17 from the two goalies compelled GM Ron Francis to go out and get Darling anyway.
The fit is perfect in many ways. The Hurricanes have a lot of good young talent such as Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Jaccob Slavin. They were a good possession team this season (6th in 5-on-5 Corsi, per Natural Stat Trick) but were undone by the fifth-worst save percentage (.901) in the league.
Darling is the perfect fit to what ails them. He’s posted a .923 save percentage in 75 appearances with the Hawks over the past three seasons. Even if he takes a slight step back in efficiency while adjusting to a larger workload, he should still be at least average, and a clear upgrade upon relying on the Lack/Ward combination.
It’s not hard to imagine this partnership allowing both sides to blossom. Aho, Teravainen, Hanifin, and others could continue progressing as they get older. Combined with the addition of Darling as the missing piece to the puzzle, the Hurricanes seem well-positioned to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Winning a Stanley Cup as a backup in 2015 was surely satisfying, but this is a new challenge that Darling seems ready to embrace.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to learn how to be the best starter I can be,” Darling said. “I have a good network of goalie friends and I’m going to be picking their brains and asking for help and do everything I can do to be successful.”
It’s unfortunate that the Blackhawks couldn’t find room for two great goalies anymore, but that’s the reality with Corey Crawford installed as the $6 million starter. He’s still The Man in the crease for Chicago. Now Darling gets to show he can fill the same role for a team hoping of getting to where the Blackhawks have been over the past decade.
And at a price of $4.15 million per year, Darling has gotten the price tag worthy of a starter. That’s something the Hawks could never do for a backup. It’s also enough money that you can see why GM Stan Bowman may have looked at his options, considered what it’d take to trade Crawford with his no-trade rights, and decided roughly $2 million in savings wasn’t enough to take the risk. Darling, as good as he’s been, hasn’t been a consistent starter like Crawford over the past five years.
But he also never had the chance before. Now Darling has finally found a new home to prove he can be an NHL starter, and it seems like the perfect place for him to do it.