Scott Darlings long path to the NHL brings him to Hurricanes

Carolina gets chance to negotiate with pending UFA after trade brings standout Blackhawks backup goalie to Raleigh

Chris Humphreys—USA TODAY Sports
Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling was traded to Carolina Friday in exchange for a third-round draft pick in this summer's draft. The Hurricanes will be able to exclusively negotiate a contract with Darling

RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said he would address the team’s goaltending this offseason. He did it before the calendar flipped to May.The Hurricanes traded for the rights to Chicago backup goalie Scott Darling on Friday, sending a third-round pick in this year’s draft for the opportunity to try to sign the pending unrestricted free agent before July 1. The trade came just eight days after the Blackhawks were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Nashville Predators.Darling, 28, went 39-17-9 in two-plus seasons as Chicago’s No. 2 behind Corey Crawford and is one of the biggest goaltenders in NHL history at 6-foot-6 and 232 pounds. Only Ben Bishop — arguably the top goaltender on the free agent market this summer, with Darling mentioned just behind him — is taller in league history, and Buffalo starter Robin Lehner is the lone goalie on record to weigh more than Darling at 239 pounds.Darling, a Chicago native, has expressed his desire to be a No. 1 goalie, even if it means leaving his hometown team.”Yeah, I feel like I’ve paid my dues as a backup,” he told the Chicago media. “And when I’ve had a chance to play in consecutive games I feel like I’ve shown that I can do it.”He was 18-5-5 this past season, finishing with a .924 save percentage, 2.38 goals-against average and two shutouts in 32 total appearances.The pick headed to Chicago was acquired from Ottawa in the deal that sent Viktor Stalberg to the Senators at the trade deadline. The Hurricanes still have six picks in the top three rounds of this summer’s draft, including three in the second round and two remaining third-rounders. Carolina’s other two third-round picks (their own and New Jersey’s) will come before the Ottawa pick that now belongs to Chicago.Darling, who like Bishop played collegiate hockey at the University of Maine, had an extremely long and winding path to the NHL despite being a sixth-round pick of the Coyotes in 2007.Darling was dismissed from Maine in June 2010 after being suspended three times in 16 months, brought on by excessive drinking to cope with anxiety.He flamed out in the low minors of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), but then got sober in the summer of 2011 and returned to the league and started his ascent. He played a game in Central Hockey League and then jumped full-time to the ECHL (hockey’s version of Double-A) before getting a chance in the American Hockey League in 2013-14 with the Milwaukee Admirals.Darling played the following season with Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, before earning a promotion to the Blackhawks. His Chicago debut on Oct. 26, 2014 made him the first SPHL alumnus to reach the NHL. On top of his regular-season success, Darling played in five games, starting four, for Chicago in the 2015 playoffs, going 3-1 with a .936 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average.If Carolina can get Darling signed, they will have three netminders inked to one-way contracts heading into next season.Cam Ward has been the team’s No. 1 goalie since taking over for Martin Gerber in the 2006 playoffs, leading the team to the Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. He has one year remaining on a contract that pays him $3.1 million and counts $3.3 million against the cap.Eddie Lack — Francis’ last attempt at landing a No. 1 goalie when he acquired him from Vancouver on June 27, 2015 — also has a year remaining on the two-year deal he signed before he ever played a game for Carolina. Lack failed to seize the job from Ward during the 2015-16 season, and Ward was re-signed that offseason to keep the tandem intact. Lack will earn $3 million in 2017-18 and counts $2.75 million against the salary cap.Both Ward and Lack struggled to backstop the Hurricanes the past two seasons. Out of 60 goaltenders who have started at least a combined 25 games the last two seasons, Ward ranked 52nd in save percentage (.907) and Lack was 58th (.902). Darling was 14th at .919.There are risks to the trade. The Hurricanes aren’t guaranteed to get Darling under contract and he could negotiate and sign with any team starting on July 1.Last season, the Buffalo Sabres traded a third-round pick to Nashville for the rights to collegiate star Jimmy Vesey — who had told the Predators he would not sign with them before becoming a free agent — but the 22-year-old Harvard graduate instead entered free agency and signed with the New York Rangers.Carolina could also get stuck paying three goalies NHL money, or have to buy out either one of Lack or Ward. One way around that might be using another of their 10 remaining 2017 draft picks to convince the Vegas Golden Knights to choose one of their goalies in the June 22 expansion draft.Lack could be the odd-man out after Hurricanes coach Bill Peters blasted him in early March following a 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay in which the goaltender faced just 16 shots. Lack went on to go 4-1-1 in his next six starts, pushing Carolina to the edge of the playoff race, but suffered a neck strain in the final game in that stretch following a collision on the Red Wings’ overtime winner.