The Carolina Hurricanes are going to have to make a goaltending decision before long, as Scott Darling is almost ready to return to the net. The team activated the injured goaltender today and sent him to the minor leagues on a conditioning stint. Darling will start for the Charlotte Checkers on Wednesday evening, but could force the NHL team to waive either Curtis McElhinney or Petr Mrazek before long, unless they’re planning on carrying three goaltenders.
Even though Darling hasn’t been good since joining the Hurricanes before last season, the team still has quite a bit invested in him. Signed to a four-year, $16.6MM contract in the spring of 2017, he’s making $4.75MM this season in the second year of the deal. While that doesn’t put him in the upper echelon of goaltenders around the league, it does make him an expensive asset for a team like Carolina who usually sit near the bottom of the league in salary commitments. Add in that McElhinney and Mrazek are earning less than $2.5MM combined this season and it’s obvious where the Hurricanes need to get some production from.
It’s still not clear if they’ll get that production though, as even with his good preseason Darling is still far from proven in the NHL with the club. Last season saw him register an .888 save percentage through 43 games, putting him among the worst goaltenders in the league. Luckily for him, Mrazek and McElhinney haven’t been much better since arriving in Carolina. Though the latter has a 3-1 record, it’s more thanks to a solid team in front of him than his individual performance in net.
In fact, the offense in Carolina has been excellent this season with 26 goals through their first eight games. A competent goaltender could push them into the more impressive teams in the Eastern Conference, given their solid defensive foundation and exciting young forward group. If Darling can revert to the goaltender he was in Chicago, where he posted a .923 save percentage through 75 games, they would certainly become serious playoff contender in the Metropolitan Division. Without improved play in the net though, Carolina will have a tough time fending off the rest of a group that includes teams like Washington and Pittsburgh.
Remember that if the Hurricanes decide to place McElhinney on waivers, the Toronto Maple Leafs would get a chance to reclaim him. If the Maple Leafs were to the only team to put in a bid, they could send him right to the minor leagues—an outcome that they could desperately use, given their razor thin depth in net. Mrazek meanwhile would likely clear given his $1.5MM salary, but would then be an expensive asset to sit in the minor leagues. The fact that Anton Forsberg is on waivers today may actually be beneficial to the Hurricanes, given that he could be snapped up by a goaltender-hungry team before they have to make a decision.