Veteran goaltender Cam Ward called it a career today, signing a one-day contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, who he served for 13 seasons to begin his NHL career. The 35-year-old finally moved on from the Hurricanes last season, but struggled in a backup role with the Chicago Blackhawks. With his numbers slipping and age catching up with him, Ward decided now was the time to retire.
Interestingly enough, Ward’s failed replacement in Carolina, Scott Darling, also remains an unsigned free agent, waiting for a market to develop. Just two UFA goaltenders – Anthony Stolarz and Jared Coreau – have signed an NHL contract since July 2nd and no goalie has been inked in 50 days. The market is dead quiet, but Ward’s exit leaves Darling as the obvious top name if a team does come calling. Darling, 30, is just hoping at this point that he too doesn’t have to consider retirement.
It was not long ago that Darling was actually considered one of the best backup goaltenders in the NHL. A 2007 draft pick, Darling was a slow-developing prospect who played another year of juniors, two years in college, and four years bouncing around the minors before he ever saw NHL action. However, when he broke through in 2014-15 with the Chicago Blackhawks, he immediately impressed. Darling spent three seasons as the backup to Corey Crawford, with his role increasing each year, and in total posted 39 wins, a .923 save percentage, and a 2.37 GAA in 75 appearances.
The Hurricanes believed they were getting a bargain when they acquired Darling for a third-round pick in the summer of 2017 and signed him to a four-year, $16.6MM contract. However, it quickly became clear that the star backup was not cut out to be a starter. Darling was unable to overtake Ward despite ample opportunity, posting an .888 save percentage and 3.18 GAA in 43 appearances. Darling made 40 starts to Ward’s 42 and was outplayed by the aging veteran, which is not what either he nor Carolina had hoped for.
The ‘Canes essentially cleaned house last summer, letting Ward walk in free agency and burying Darling in the AHL, replacing them with the far more effective duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Darling did make eight spot starts for Carolina this past season, but somehow performed even worse than he did the year prior. In the minors, Darling sat behind lauded prospect Alex Nedeljkovic and when he did get a chance to play – he made just 14 appearances – the results were just as bad if not worse than his NHL performance. Not wanting to be weighed down by Darling’s $4.15MM cap hit any longer, the team traded him to the Florida Panthers this off-season along with a sixth-round draft pick for a new backup in James Reimer. The Panthers quickly bought out Darling, making him a free agent.
It has now been more than two years since anyone has been impressed by Darling’s efforts on the ice. With that said, the free agent market at goalie is slim pickings, with Darling easily headlining a group that includes Michal Neuvirth – who has signed a PTO with the Toronto Maple Leafs – Chad Johnson, Al Montoya, and Michael Leighton. Each of those players is both older than Darling and was last considered a legitimate NHL option far prior to Darling’s downfall. Darling is simply the best of a poor group, but is looking for redemption. Unlike Ward, Darling will have no expectations of any role or guaranteed play time. He will instead be looking for an opportunity to show that he can still be an effective NHL backup, likely by seeking a third-string role with the chance to battle for play time at the top level.
Accepting a role such as this could open some opportunities for Darling, especially once training camp begins. Injuries to starters or backups can shift the paradigm for an NHL team and leave them searching or an experienced option. The Vegas Golden Knights, Anaheim Ducks, and Philadelphia Flyers are examples of teams with shallow depth in net and injury concerns who could turn to Darling in the even of an incident.
It’s also very possible that several teams are already aware of their weaknesses in goal and simply waiting to see how their current keepers look in training camp and the preseason and potentially even early on the in the regular season. The Columbus Blue Jackets are the one team that everyone is focused on in net, as the team is set to have former backup Joonas Korpisalo and newly-signed European prospect Elvis Merzlikins begin the year as a young, unproven tandem. Early concerns could lead to Columbus looking for additional support, with Darling as the top option other than trade or waivers. The Colorado Avalanche are also in need of depth in net. Their top two of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz are likely to be fine this season, but the lack of any other experienced name behind them could be a cause for pause, especially given this will be Francouz’ first full NHL season.
Ironically, the Florida Panthers are one final team that could be in the goalie market and would have been a good fit for Darling. The team understandably bought out Darling’s hefty contract, but could’ve actually used a player of his experience. The Panthers spent big on Sergei Bobrovsky’s this summer and will likely ask him to start 65+ games this season, but young Samuel Montembeault is currently slated to be his backup with other untested prospects behind him. Montembeault’s performance in the backup role, as well as the effect on his development of sitting so often, could lead the Panthers to search for a veteran option. Darling won’t be the answer now, but one has to wonder if the two sides connected at all prior to what was clearly an orchestrated trade-and-dump.
It’s nearly September and teams are getting ready for training camp, yet Darling still sits without a contract. At this point, he will receive a PTO or nothing. Even if he proves himself in camp, it will likely only result in a minimum $700K NHL cap hit on a one-year, two-way deal. If that’s what it takes to climb his back way into the NHL though, Darling will surely take it. After all, he’s receiving a nice pay check from the Panthers for four more years anyway.