RALEIGH — Ron Francis’ three-year tenure as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes could be summed up with one word: patience. While the team’s ownership has asked the fan base for that difficult expectation through eight playoff-less seasons, no one exemplified it better than Francis, the team’s former captain whose No. 10 hangs in the PNC Arena rafters.
On the exact third anniversary of his hiring as team’s GM, Francis made perhaps the biggest move and gamble of his time running the Hurricanes, trading a third-round draft pick to Chicago in exchange for the exclusive rights to negotiate with goaltender Scott Darling, who was set to be an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Francis’ move paid off, and Darling won’t be hitting the open market this summer after signing a four-year, $16.6 million contract on Friday to be the hopeful savior in net for the NHL’s youngest team.
“Obviously Scott could have waited until July 1, to see what other options he might have as an unrestricted free agent,” said Francis in a press release. “But he believes in what we are trying to do here and we are thrilled that he is committing to the Hurricanes and to Raleigh.
“Darling, 28, had outgrown his job as backup to Blackhawks ace Corey Crawford, but he’s still unproven as an everyday starter in the NHL.
His numbers point to him being more than capable.
Darling is 39-17-9 in 75 career appearances with a .923 save percentage and 2.37 goals-against average. Most impressively, he jumped into the net in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs in place of Crawford and went 3-1 with a .936 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in five appearances, helping the Blackhawks on their trip to a title.
Born in Newport News, Va., but raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Darling had a tumultuous path to the NHL. He was a highly touted recruit to the University of Maine and a sixth-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007, but flamed out after two college seasons amid struggles with anxiety and drinking.
He fell all the way to the Southern Professional Hockey League — he would become the first of the league’s alumni to reach the NHL — before turning around his life and career and beginning his climb up the pro ranks. He earned his first NHL recall in the 2014-15 season and has been a mainstay in Chicago’s goalie rotation since.
Darling — who will speak to the media via conference call at noon on Saturday — is not only one of the biggest goalies in the NHL, but one of the largest players in league history. That should be a sight for Hurricanes coach Bill Peters’ sore eyes, as he has pleaded for his goalies (Eddie Lack in particular) to play big and square. Darling, at 6-foot-6 and 232 pounds, can’t help but be big.
The move to trade for and sign Darling signifies several things.
It marks the likely end of the Cam Ward’s run as the team’s de facto No. 1 goalie, a job he’s held since the 2006 playoffs when he led the team to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s best player.
It means Lack, brought in two seasons ago to do the same thing now expected of Darling, will likely be the odd-man out after a roller-coaster stay with the team.
And it hopefully solves the Achilles’ heel that has kept Carolina from reaching the postseason in recent memory, a run that has led to dwindling attendance and the exit of faces of the franchise Jim Rutherford, Francis’ predecessor as general manager and now GM of the defending champion Penguins, and former captain Eric Staal.
Darling’s contract, which has an annual cap hit of $4.15 million, represents a big raise, but still only makes him currently the 23rd highest paid goalie in the NHL next season. Ben Bishop, the biggest free agent goaltender on the market this summer, should easily exceed that number, and others (Buffalo’s Robin Lehner, a restricted free agent, is one) could also potentially cost more this offseason.
Francis will need to find a taker for one of his other two goalies — both Ward and Lack have a year remaining on their one-way contracts — but he can now shift his attention to an offseason that includes the expansion draft, June’s entry draft and the opening of free agency on July 1.
The Hurricanes are expected to shore up their bottom pairing on defense and could also be in the market for an impact forward for a team that ranked tied for 20th in goals scored. Only one team, the Ottawa Senators, scored fewer goals than Carolina and made the postseason.
Francis has a wealth of draft picks — six of the drafts first 73 selections — and also the cap space to be players in the expansion draft market, where teams may be willing to trade players rather than have them exposed and lost to the incoming Vegas Golden Knights for nothing.
Francis’ job isn’t done, but with Darling’s addition he has scratched off the biggest item on his offseason to-do list.