As it turns out, taking a huge risk and signing average/slightly above average backup goalies to four-year contracts because you want them to be your starter is a very bad idea. It’s an even worse idea when your other goalie is “career below average save percentage” Cam Ward, so if your new (kinda) pricey goalie doesn’t work out, then you have to depend on a goalie who hasn’t had an above league average save percentage since 2010-11.
There’s really not a lot to say, besides the fact that in 2017-18 in 43 games (40 starts) Scott Darling was bad. He had a 0.888 SV% (when league average was 0.912) and I’m not going to mention his GAA because it’s a garbage stat and we should stop using it. His GSAA (goals saved above average) is -28.22, which means that if he had the league average SV% of 0.912 he would have let in 28 fewer goals, which is 0.66 goals per game. Scott Darling was so bad that he made Cam Ward’s 0.906 SV% look good.
Well, this offseason the Canes finally cut the cord with Cam Ward and let him go and sign with the Hawks, and signed Petr Mràzek, who isn’t exactly an upgrade. In 2017-18 he played 39 games with Detroit and Philadelphia where he had a 0.902 SV%. However, if Carolina truly believed that Darling would rebound and be able to perform at the same level that he did as a backup goalie (SV% of 0.936, 0.915, and 0.924 with Chicago) then Mràzek does make sense as a fairly cheap backup.
The only issue is that Darling didn’t rebound and Mràzek has been just as bad. Enter Curtis McElhinney, the man who’s playing the best hockey of his life in his 30s. Does this not look like an elite athlete who has a 0.926 SV% over the past three seasons?
While it’s only been nine games, McElhinney has a 0.930 SV%, proving that the Canes made the correct choice in picking him up off of waivers. However, it did force them to make the decision of what to do with their three goalies, since it was clear that McElhinney has to stay in the NHL. And ultimately the decision was that Darling would be put on waivers (with the hope of him and his contract getting claimed) two months into the second year of a four year deal.
The Canes will have to figure out what they want to do with Darling, both this season in the AHL, and for the rest of his contract. I can’t imagine that any team is going to want to take on his contract, and the Charlotte Checkers’ head coach Mike Vellucci said that Alex Nedeljkovic (the Canes’ first-round pick from the 2014 draft) is the goalie of the future for the Canes, and they’ll be treating him as such in the AHL. Which means that the Canes will have their AHL back-up goalie counting as more than $3M against the Cap.
Even with that $3M, the Canes have more cap space than any other team, but they have a lot of players who are going to need new contracts next season. That list of players who will need new contracts includes McElhinney and Mràzek (neither of whom should require extreme amounts of money if the Canes want to keep them). But we’re only 24 games into the season and we don’t know if Curtis McElhinney will be able to sustain his 0.930 SV%, especially since he’s already half-way to his 18-game total in 2017-18. I’m rooting for Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mràzek and I hope that between the two of them the Canes can get (at least) league average goaltending. But if they don’t, will this be what finally forces them to go out and get a real starting goalie, or do they want to wait for Nedeljkovic to be ready? They consider him to be the goalie of the future, but in 17 games he has a 0.895 SV% (and had a 0.903 in 49 games in 2017-18) so it would appear that he isn’t ready yet.
The Canes aren’t expected to contend yet, so do they just ride McElhinney and Mràzek and hope that it isn’t awful? Do they hope that Darling gets it together in the AHL and call him back up to the NHL later in the season in the hopes that he performs well enough that they can find a team desperate enough for a goalie that they’ll make a trade? No matter what it is that they do this year, the Canes have a lot of talented young players (both in the NHL and the AHL) and they have a promising future if they can finally get a true starting goalie. Whether that’s waiting for Nedeljkovic to be ready, making a trade, or signing someone next offseason, the Canes need to sort out their goaltending, and Scott Darling is the latest example of their failure to do so.