Goaltender Scott Darling was the first star of the game as he led the Carolina Hurricanes to a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in an NHL hockey game at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Dec. 16, 2017. Chip Alexander calexander@newsobserver.com
Goaltender Scott Darling was the first star of the game as he led the Carolina Hurricanes to a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in an NHL hockey game at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Dec. 16, 2017. Chip Alexander calexander@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

Time to stick a fork in Carolina Hurricanes’ Scott Darling experiment

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

January 21, 2018 09:30 PM

RALEIGH

There’s still a chance that Scott Darling could emerge as a legitimate No. 1 goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe even later this season, although there’s scant evidence so far to believe that will happen. For now, here on the other side of the solstice of the season, Darling isn’t the player the Hurricanes thought they traded for in April.

He’s not even Eddie Lack.

As has so often been the case for the past decade, the Hurricanes will head down the stretch playing catch-up in the standings with Cam Ward as their first option in net. Maybe this is the year Ward is able to play at the upper limit of his ability for an extended period of time. He wasn’t supposed to be asked again.

This was supposed to be Darling’s team. But it’s time to stick a fork in the Darling experiment, well intentioned as it may have been, after Sunday’s 5-1 loss. It’s January and his save percentage is .892, which means the Hurricanes gave up a third-round pick and $16.6 million to get worse at the position.

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Sunday was the kind of game where the Hurricanes, facing the improbable Vegas Golden Knights on a short turnaround from Saturday’s win in Detroit, needed a little help from their (rested) goalie. Darling was hung out to dry on the first goal. The second was a power-play deflection where you would love to get a save but can’t expect one. The third was a glove-side whiff. That one was entirely on Darling.

The game was 13 minutes old. So was Darling’s night.

“Tough sequence of events,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said.

Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters and assistant Steve Smith aren't happy after goalie Scott Darling gave up his third goal of the first period in Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. Peters pulled Darling after the goal.
Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Not all of that was Darling’s fault – Peters openly questioned his team’s toughness afterward – but he didn’t help much either. Yet again, the Hurricanes looked as tentative and nervous in front of him as he did in net, but the way the team seems to play worse in front of Darling than Ward is a symptom of the larger problem, not the problem itself. Yes, Ward moves the puck better, which helps, but the Hurricanes clearly don’t trust Darling, and to be fair to them, he’s done little to earn their trust. Since the eight-goal Toronto debacle, which was largely but not entirely his fault, Darling has a 3.92 goals-against average. He’s not exactly making the strongest case for himself.

Peters likes to look at the game as a race to three goals, and Darling has given up three or more goals in 18 of 29 appearances. Sunday, the Knights needed all of eight shots to win that race.

The Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters talks to reporters following the team's disappointing 5-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 21, 2018. Chris Sewardcseward@newsobserver.com

Not everyone can handle the transition to becoming a starter, but there was enough on Darling’s resume to suggest that wouldn’t be an issue. Something’s very wrong here, whether it’s his confidence or his technique or how his style fits with this team. He doesn’t look like the goaltender he was in Chicago. Maybe he needs a week in Charlotte to get his mojo back. Maybe that would make things worse. Who knows?

There was a lot to like about the Canes’ acquisition of Darling, and he was unquestionably in demand over the summer. There were a few options out there, and the Hurricanes went for this one and beat out other teams to get him. It may yet work here. There are another three years on his contract, more than enough time and incentive for both the goalie and the team to figure things out. There still could be a happy ending down the road. Maybe he’s the kind of guy who needs a year to adjust to a starting role.

The Hurricanes just didn’t have a year to give. They needed help now. The Hurricanes believed that merely league-average goaltending would get them into the playoffs. They still don’t have it.

Darling’s inability to meet NHL standards has left them right back where they were last year. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919–829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock