There isn’t an official handbook that outlines the steps to execute a successful rebuild in the NHL, but you wouldn’t be alone if you were convinced Ron Francis was reading from one.
Since taking over three seasons ago, he and his staff have charted out an exemplary course of action to build a budget franchise like the Carolina Hurricanes back to respectability.
Among the highlights: They hired Bill Peters, a coach who teaches and has implemented a system that jibes with the current state of the NHL; they have drafted exceptionally well, assembling a quality prospect base built from the back end out; they identified the existing pieces that would remain useful on the other side of a rebuild and obtained assets for those they determined wouldn’t; they have used their cap space and standing to poach talent from clubs at war with the salary cap; and they have signed good contracts, allowing them to begin utilizing their financial freedom with serviceable parts supplementing the core.
Perhaps the only knock on this regime is that it hasn’t put the team in a position to be bad enough to draft the sort of immense talent which would allow for the process to be accelerated.
What the Hurricanes are doing isn’t innovative, though. Yes, they have shown self-restraint and have been willing to see the process through, but for the most part relied on the same tactics most teams use to turn their fortunes around.
And like many retooling franchises, the Hurricanes threw a draft pick at their biggest problem.
The results have been decent, though to varying degrees, for upstart teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres (who were each bad enough to bag a generational talent), who have used first-round draft picks or a package of selections to acquire a starting goaltender.
Now ready to compete themselves, the Hurricanes used a similarly inexact formula to land the player they hope will steady the rebuild, only paying far less to do so.
With the third-round draft pick acquired from the Ottawa Senators for rental forward Viktor Stalberg, Carolina procured Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks, and quickly locked him up on a four-year extension worth $16.6 million. For Carolina, the exchange works out to a potential long-term starter for a player who failed to secure an NHL contract this summer, and shipped off to Switzerland.
Unbelievably savvy if it works; a tad questionable if it doesn’t.
So is Darling that rock — the capable NHL starter that will shore up the position that has prevented the Hurricanes from overachieving over the past several seasons?
Every indication would suggest he is.
Since his unlikely path to the NHL led him to a backup role behind Corey Crawford, Darling ranks among the top statistical stoppers in the league. His .923 save percentage is just a few paces behind Carey Price’s .929 mark, which is the NHL’s best across the three seasons since Darling broke in.
Darling was fortunate to dress for a high-end team, but the Blackhawks were not a club that suppressed shots and scoring chances at a supreme rate. He faced 30.55 shots per hour in his time with Chicago, or considerably more than Carolina’s top option, Cam Ward, who saw the third fewest shots on average among stoppers with more than 100 appearances.
He also gained some of experience in the postseason, having rescued the Blackhawks in Round 1 versus the Nashville Predators in Chicago’s run to a third championship in the salary cap era in 2015.
Better numbers under more stress, as well as experience (and success) in high-leverage situations, the 6-foot-6, 230-plus-pound netminder jumps out as a immediate upgrade on paper over last year’s tandem in Carolina. Together, Ward and Eddie Lack hovered just above the .900 Mendoza Line, which sunk what chance Carolina had of competing in a stacked Metropolitan Division.
Then there’s also the fact that Darling is enlisting with a team with one of the best up-and-coming defensive units in the NHL, which should only make life easier on the netminder over the course of his deal. (This unit is led by Jaccob Slavin, who the Hurricanes just locked down for seven seasons at a team-friendly rate).
It all adds up: the Hurricanes should get the save they haven’t gotten in recent seasons from Darling, if you base that assumption on the standard he’s established for himself at the NHL level.
But then again, and despite the success of other former backups who have walked the same path, it’s not at all unreasonable to wonder if Darling can cut it as an NHL starter. Because unlike the Joneses, Talbots, Andersens and Lehners, this is a goaltender who gained negligible experience in a No. 1 role while bouncing around leagues during his unlikely ascension to the NHL.
Darling’s transition will be a fascinating storyline around a team that has commanded attention with its work this offseason, and over the past few years.
Will his acquisition be the Hurricanes’ quintessential move, and a crown jewel for a franchise building a winner with sensibility?
Or will this single daring stroke begin to unravel their logic?
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