Darling signs for four years, $16.6 million in Carolina
Scott Darling’s remarkable, inspiring story will continue with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Darling signed a four-year, $16.6-million contract on Friday with the Hurricanes, who acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft on April 29.
It’s the next step in a journey that for Darling, who played for 12 teams over four years, starting with a sting in the Southern Professional Hockey League, before getting his big break with the Blackhawks in 2014-15. The 6-foot-6 stopper turned that opportunity into a 39-17-9 record and .923 save percentage over three seasons with his hometown Blackhawks and shown signs he is ready to be a No.1, including leading Chicago past the Nashville Predators in the First Round of the playoffs en route to winning the Stanley Cup in 2015.
Darling was 18-5-5 with a .924 save percentage this season, again showing he can be a No.1 by carrying the starters load when Corey Crawford was injured in December. Darling, 28, could have tested the open market as an unrestricted free agent July 1 and probably counted on offers from either the Calgary Flames or Dallas Stars, if not both. But with Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, Steve Mason, Chad Johnson, Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Mike Condon and Peter Budaj also set to become free agents, wisely avoided what could be a cutthroat game of musical chairs.
The initiative shown by the Hurricanes probably didn’t hurt. It’s always nice feeling wanted.
“I was super excited when the trade happened, and my goal the whole time was to sign with Carolina,” Darling said during a conference call on Saturday, adding he talked to former teammates now in Carolina. “I’m really excited about the team that’s there, and I’ve heard nothing but great things. Once we worked out the contract part, it was a no-brainer.”
Darling only has 64 starts under his belt, but like Martin Jones with the San Jose Sharks and Cam Talbot with the Edmonton Oilers, the Hurricanes are counting on the potential he’s shown to solidify a goaltending position that finished with a .901 combined save percentage last season, 26th in the NHL. Cam Ward, 33, was 6-22-12 with a .905 save percentage and Eddie Lack, 29, was 8-7-3 with a .902 save percentage in 20 games after missing time with two concussions.
Each has a year remaining on their existing contracts – Ward at $3.1 million, Lack at $2.75 – and will be exposed in the expansion draft before one is either traded or bought out.
Darling is one of the NHL’s genuine good guys, and an admitted “goalie nerd,” with a passion for the position that includes appearances at the annual GGSU Legends Camp for aspiring stars and beer leaguers alike. It’s that passion that should serve him well as he makes the adjustment to playing more in Carolina, one that inevitably comes with ups and downs for most goalies.
“I think I’m confident because I’m excited about it,” Darling said during the conference call. “I’m going to do everything in my power to learn how to be the best starter I can be. I have a good network of goalie friends, and I’m going to be picking their brains and asking for help, just trying I can do everything I can to be successful in that role.”
That network includes fellow GGSU instructors and good friends like Garret Sparks of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, Canadian Olympic star Shannon Szabados, and Condon, who has gone through that process first hand last season with the Montreal Canadians and again for stretches this year with the Ottawa Senators. Darling also pointed to Crawford as a mentor.
“The last three years I learned a lot about the mental part of the game in watching Crow play every day and being lucky enough to study one of the best goalies in the world every single day and getting advice from him, teaching me how he goes about and thinks about goaltending. I learned a lot from him,” Darling said. “The skills came along, too, but I think a lot of it was between the ears, and I was lucky enough to learn from one of the best.”
Playing in Chicago should also help Darling deal with one of the unique challenges of playing goal behind a Carolina team that controls play in the other end but was 20th in goal scoring: Not always being busy but staying sharp after long periods of inactivity, often against rush chances. As Ward has told InGoal in the past, it’s not a style likely to produce great goalie statistics but Darling is used to overcoming bigger problems.
Once a promising junior prospect, Darling basically partied his way out of the University of Maine and pro hockey before quitting drinking, losing 40 pounds and recommitting himself to his craft. He re-united with former Bruins goaltending coach Brian Daccord, who a year earlier had turned Darling, a long-time pupil away from his Stop It Goaltending school in Boston due to behavioural concerns, and began to resurrect his once promising career.
A solid effort with Mississippi in the SPHL led to cups of coffee with the Florida Everblades and Wichita Thunder, before a permanent ECHL deal came with the Wheeling Nailers in 2012.
Daccord later helped put Darling in touch with goalie guru Mitch Korn, leading to a two-way deal between the Predators ECHL and AHL affiliates. And when Pekka Rinne was sidelined due to hip surgery and a resulting infection last season, an opportunity with Milwaukee opened up; with Darling posting an impressive 2.00 GAA and .933 save percentage in 26 games with the AHL outfit.
His success with the Admirals paved the way for one-year, two-way deal with the Blackhawks team he grew up cheering from the nearby suburb of Lemont, and Darling turned that into the backup job, his name on the Stanley Cup and a Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nomination in 2015.
Two years later, Darling gets his shot to be a starter. It’s well deserved.
“I did enjoy the ride,” said Darling, whose journey included a two-game stint in 2012 with the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate. “It was definitely different, and for someone like me, it just makes me really appreciate where I’m at today. It just makes me really excited. My first call to the AHL was to the Charlotte Checkers. I’ve been thinking about that and how excited I was just to put on a Checkers jersey. I’m even more excited to put on a Hurricanes jersey.”