RALEIGH — Nearly two months ago, on Oct. 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to go younger and cheaper with their backup goaltending spot, opting to keep 25-year-old Garrett Sparks over 35-year-old Curtis McElhinney.
In an unfortunate — yet fortunate — turn of events, the Carolina Hurricanes happened to need a goalie after Scott Darling was injured in the team’s preseason finale.
So they claimed McElhinney, a journeyman who would be joining his seventh NHL team in 11 seasons, to shore up the position until Darling got better.
Darling may have recovered from his injury, but he never got “better.” And McElhinney proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered in the always uncertain Carolina net.
So on Thursday, the Hurricanes placed Darling on waivers, signaling that they had given up on last year’s $16.6 million investment and were prepared to move forward with McElhinney and Petr Mrazek as their goalie tandem.
“I’ve gotten a chance to play and the team’s responded well,” McElhinney said after Thursday’s practice. “We’ve gotten some wins, and, you know, I feel pretty good. I’m starting to feel more comfortable here as time goes on. It’s an unfortunate situation for Scott, and obviously I’ve been in the same scenario with waivers and what not. It’s challenging.”
While both Darling and Mrazek have had injuries this season, the practice nets had grown crowded of late with both returning to health. Feeling the need to focus on getting ample work for two goaltenders in Raleigh, the team’s braintrust decided to move ahead without the 29-year-old Darling. He will report to the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers if he clears waivers, as expected.
“I just think it’s not an ideal situation,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said of keeping three goalies on the roster. “I mean, it’s been tried before, (and) it’s never been really successful. I just think that it’s not fair to those three goalies to share nets in practice, to not really know who’s got the net or whatever. It’s just doesn’t set up right. It’s not the recipe for success, that’s for sure.”
And given McElhinney’s play — and Darling’s struggles (2-4-1 with a 3.14 goals-against average and .892 save percentage after a similarly bad 2017-18) — the decision was pretty obvious.
“I think Mac’s earned the right to be here — we all would agree on that,” Brind’Amour said of the 7-2-0 veteran goalie. “I don’t think I really need to speak further on that. I think Petr’s come in and did well and got hurt. So we need to find out. The goalie situation, we need to solidify it, and that’s basically what management did today.”
It was April 28, 2017, when Carolina thought it had finally solidified its goaltending by trading a third-round draft pick to Chicago for Darling, a pending unrestricted free agent. A week later, with exclusive rights to negotiate with him, the Hurricanes signed Darling to a four-year deal that would pay him $4.15 million annually.
But Darling’s first season in Raleigh was a nightmare. He went 13-21-7 with a goals-against average over 3 and a save percentage under .900. Longtime starter Cam Ward wound up starting more games than Darling (42 to 40), but the Hurricanes didn’t bring Ward back for a 14th season with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2002.
Instead, the Hurricanes doubled down on Darling while bringing in Mrazek — coming off a tough season of his own in Detroit and Philadelphia — to push Darling for starts.
Darling committed to getting in shape in the offseason, spending the summer working with strength coach Bill Burniston and shedding weight to be prepared for the 2018-19 season.
But the injury was a setback, and even when he did get a chance in net the results were not there. Unlike last season, when Darling’s work ethic and conditioning were questioned by the team, Brind’Amour said Darling effort had nothing to do with the results or the decision.
“It’s not about that. I think, you know, unfortunately he got hurt and we had to make a move to bolster our goaltending,” Brind’Amour said. “And let’s be honest: Mac’s played extremely well. So that put that whole equation, the goaltending thing, up in the air. I just don’t think it’s the right idea to run three goalies. So that’s basically that simple.”
But there’s no doubt the team as a whole — from management to coach to players — has benefited from McElhinney’s steady play.
The penalty kill — the worst in the league at the start of the season — has improved and has 11 straight kills during McElhinney’s current foru-four-game winning streak. And despite facing more than 30 shots a game during that run, McElhinney has managed to keep the puck out of the net.
“You’re trying to settle things down back there, slow the game down a little bit at times and just kind of give them positive reinforcement that they’re doing good things,” McElhinney said.
What hasn’t been settled his McElhinney’s home life: His wife and two young kids remain in Toronto, and they have traveled to Raleigh once since he was claimed, with him going back up north another time.
“It hasn’t been easy, but it’s certainly allowed me to kind of just focus on the hockey and get to know these guys better,” McElhinney said.
With his spot on the roster more solidified, McElhinney now starts the process of finding a place — he’s been living in a hotel — for his family and researching schools and “all that other stuff that comes along with kids.”
“I wasn’t sure what the situation was when I came in here,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was just a short-term hole or maybe there was something long term. But, you know, it’s worked out pretty well. I feel good playing behind these guys, so it’s been nice to be given the opportunity.”
Notes: The Hurricanes also placed Valentin Zykov on waivers, with plans to assign him to Charlotte if he clears. Zykov, who signed a two-year, one-way contract worth $675,000 annually, led the AHL in goals last season. … Forward Micheal Ferland missed practice, while defensemen Brett Pesce (fully participated) and Haydn Fleury (yellow sweater, left about halway through) were on the ice. Brind’Amour said the status for all three players for Friday’s game in Anaheim would be clearer in another day.