If you’re anything like me, you entered this Canes season hopeful. Too hopeful. They’re 15-17-5 right now and at this same time last year they were 18-13-7, so things have managed to get worse despite what you thought was possible and you hoped would happen.
You’re maybe a bit more hopeful now with Svechnikov there, especially when he’s actually played on the first line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teräväinen where you’ll argue he belongs instead of Brock McGinn who is sometimes on the first line for some reason you can’t figure out or Jordan Staal who you still like but maybe shouldn’t be on the first line, and Martin Nečas in Charlotte. In fact, the Checkers, for the most part, make you feel good.
But when you ignore the warm fuzzies brought on by the Charlotte Checkers and focus on the Canes, it sucks. It really does. You try to be an optimistic fan, but beyond a few certain players, it’s just dull and unexciting. Victor Rask being back has helped the team in absolutely no way, shape, or form not that you really thought it would, but you hoped, and Jeff Skinner is out there with that wonderful smile you miss, living it up with the Buffalo Sabres. You once hoped Skinner would have a season like the one he’s having in Buffalo with the Canes, but he’s gone and you can’t hope for that anymore.
If you’re like me, one of the things you hoped about the hardest, you really hoped and hoped and hoped about, was for a certain goalie named Scott Darling to do well.
Scott Darling during his time as a Carolina Hurricane.
You want Darling to do well. Who doesn’t have it in them to want him to do well after reading his piece “Goodbye, Chicago” for The Players’ Tribune (content warning for discussions of substance abuse, particularly alcoholism)? That piece gave you a huge soft spot for him. You’re optimistic about all new Canes, sure, but he has a story; he had a major obstacle, overcame it, and achieved the dream with his hometown team (even if that hometown team is the Blackhawks). It didn’t work out his first season, but you saw on social media and read the articles about his summer training, and that made you hopeful for this upcoming season. Wow, it really seems like Darling wants to be a Cane and he’s working real hard for it! Awesome! Maybe he can turn it around?
And then it didn’t turn around.
Scott Darling got injured in the final preseason game. He has only played in 8 NHL games this season, his most recent being December 14th, for a record of 2-4-2. He has let in 27 goals on 233 shots over 8 games for a GAA of 3.33 and a SV% of .884. His GAA was better last season—it was 3.18—but his SV% is worse this season than last season. It’s not by much, but last season his SV% was .888; this season it’s .884.
So things didn’t turn around.
To save the day, the Canes claimed 35 year old goaltender Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs. You read that right. 35 years old. He played in 18 games for Toronto last season, had a record of 11-5-1, a GAA of 2.15, and a SV% of .934. Good-looking numbers, but 18 is a small sample size. As of me writing this, McElhinney has played 13 games as a Hurricane. He currently has a record of 7-5-1, a GAA of 2.31, and a SV% of .922, so while his 18 games last season are currently looking better than his 13 this season, there’s no doubt he’s a better, safer option than Darling. As long as McElhinney is up to the challenge and not being overworked, there’s no reason not to play him.
The other Canes netminder, former Detroit Red Wing turned former Philadelphia Flyer Petr Mrazek, is also a safer option than Darling. Considering that Mrazek has a record of 6-8-2, a GAA of 2.59, and an SV% of .901, the fact he’s a safer option than anyone says a lot about the current state of Carolina Hurricanes goaltending. The guy who’s allowed 41 goals on 413 shots over 16 games being a safer option than anyone, is mind-boggling. (As is the fact there have apparently been 413 shots against Mrazek in only 16 games played; that’s also absolutely mind-boggling.)
So where has Scott Darling been since he surely can’t still be injured?
Well, he’s been playing in the AHL. Sort of. He’s only played in 7 games. He has won 4 games in regulation and 1 in overtime, and lost 2 games, which is definitely better than his record with the Canes so far. Despite his record, Darling’s time in Charlotte doesn’t inspire much confidence in his abilities. He still has a GAA of 3.13 and a SV% of .888. In his most recent game, an OT win, he had a SV% of .892. The game before that, a regulation loss, is his worst this season. Even worse than the .789 SV% he posted in his second-to-last NHL game this season against the New York Islanders on November 24th. On November 21st, as a Charlotte Checker, Scott Darling allowed 6 goals and had a SV% of .786 in a regulation loss against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Checkers lost 1-6, so it wasn’t only a bad game for Darling, but still, 6 goals is a lot to give up.
Not all of Darling’s AHL games are terrible. There’s a 3-1 victory in there. A 3-2 OT victory, though personally OT victories don’t make me go “Wow, the goalie had things under control.” There’s also a 7-4 victory, which isn’t as bad as a 1-6 loss since it’s a win, but it still doesn’t inspire much confidence.
But does Darling even have a place in Charlotte?
The Charlotte Checkers are at the top of the AHL with 50 points. The next closest team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, have 47 points. The Checkers have a winning percentage of .735, while the next closest team, the San Jose Barracuda, have a winning percentage of .714. The Checkers have 3 more wins than the next closest team. Overall, the Charlotte Checkers are a good team.
Charlotte Checkers starter Alex Nedeljkovic, or “Ned.”
Without a doubt, 22 year old Alex Nedeljkovic who’s simply called “Ned” most of the time, is the starter in Charlotte. He’s played in 23 of the team’s 34 games this season. He has a record of 15-5-2, a GAA of 2.81, and a SV% of .895. This is his third season as a Checker and, while his stats were better last season, it’s still relatively early in the season in terms of turning that around and he’s still clearly the Checkers’ guy. He’s doing leagues better than he did in his first season in Charlotte; in the 2016-17 season, he played only 25 games and had a record of 8-14-1. He had 1 shutout. Compare to the 5 shutouts he had last season. Last season, he had a record of 31-12-3, a GAA of 2.55, and a SV% of .903. Ned currently leads AHL goalies in wins. The Checkers are in good hands with him.
The other Checkers goaltender is a bit less familiar. Callum Booth is a 21 year old rookie. He played 4 games in Charlotte last season and has already surpassed that by playing in 7 this season. He’s played that really low amount of games where it’s difficult to tell if the numbers he’s gotten so far are sustainable or not due to sample size. Regardless of long-term sustainability, he’s played the same amount of AHL games as Darling this season and Booth’s numbers are better. His 7 games have resulted in 4 regulation wins, 3 OT wins, and 1 regulation loss. He has a GAA of 1.89 and a SV% of .924. Even if having a larger sample size brings these numbers down, he seems to be a good second goalie for Charlotte with Ned as the starter of course. Maybe Ned goes up to the Canes at some point, leaving Booth as the starter. It’s of course too far off to know right now it would make sense.
So where does this leave Darling? It looks like he’s in the AHL to stay unless something happens to Mrazek or McElhinney and the Canes need another goaltender, but that still wouldn’t guarantee his call up; Ned or even Booth might get the call instead if they’ve been performing better.
If push came to shove and it were Darling and Booth battling it out to backup Ned in the AHL, would Darling have a chance? As of now, it doesn’t look like it. Darling has more goaltending experience overall, but this AHL season they’ve played the same amount of games and Booth’s numbers are better.
Would Darling even want to be an AHL backup? I don’t know. He’s gotten a taste of the NHL and I don’t know if that makes people reluctant to go down to the AHL.
Could the Canes possibly trade him? Honestly, I have no idea who would want him right now or what he’d be worth. If a trade were a possibility, it might make more sense to play him more in Charlotte until his numbers are a bit better and then see who’s willing to bite.
Whatever’s next, wherever he ends up, I wish Darling the best. I obviously can’t speak for all Canes fans, but it was nice to see him become so dedicated to improvement after last season, to see him want to be a Carolina Hurricane. It felt really nice to see someone so openly want to be a Cane and it sucks the season opened with an injury that either rocked him more physically and/or mentally than any of us thought it would. He’s become one of those players, at least for me, that I want to wish well no matter the team he ends up on and I’ll probably keep an eye on his games there too whether he’s in Charlotte or in another team’s organization.
I’m not as sure he’ll be going anywhere as this conclusion would make you think, but what’s next for Scott Darling is a big question I don’t think anyone can definitively answer. It takes into account the stuff we can handle and see like numbers, and then also the harder to pin down stuff like markets for goalies, markets specifically for a goalie like Scott Darling, and then what Scott Darling himself would want. And who knows what will happen next; sports are full of surprises. Could Scott Darling make a comeback? I don’t know.
Scott Darling image source: X
Alex Nedeljkovic image source: X