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If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now. The Hurricanes can’t save Scott Darling.

After a terrible season, Carolina Hurricanes goalie works towards a comeback

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling had one of the worst seasons a goalie can have in the NHL. But this summer he's been hitting the gym to make sure what happened last season doesn't happen again.
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Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling had one of the worst seasons a goalie can have in the NHL. But this summer he's been hitting the gym to make sure what happened last season doesn't happen again.

The Scott Darling era isn’t necessarily over. He may very well go to Charlotte, rediscover his form, put together a run of solid games and return to the Carolina Hurricanes for his eighth or ninth (or whatever it is now) chance in net. It’s possible.

But we can finally dispose of any notion that there’s a great goalie somewhere inside him, waiting to emerge under the right circumstances, who has been unjustly let down by his teammates, his coaches and management over the past 14 months.

He was put on waivers Thursday because the Hurricanes finally had enough of him letting them down.

Rod Brind’Amour has made “Earn it” the mantra of his coaching regime. Thursday, Darling became Exhibit A.

Since arriving here in what may have been the worst move of Ron Francis’ entire tenure as general manager – giving up a third-round pick for a guy who was about to become become a free agent, then using that exclusive negotiating window to pay through the nose on a four-year, $16.6 million contract – Darling has done nothing to affirm he’s an NHL goalie.

Certainly he arrived with the statistics and resume as a backup, and the hopes of an entire franchise on his elevated shoulders, but for whatever reason – a sense of entitlement, a fear of success or maybe just a lack of elite talent – his time here has been an unmitigated disaster.

Last season, he cost his team any shot at the playoffs and his coach and general manager their jobs with one of the worst statistical seasons in modern NHL history after arriving out of shape. This season, the Hurricanes are on a 106-point pace with Curtis McElhinney or Petr Mrazek in net and a 59-point pace with Darling in net even though Darling’s save percentage is better than Mrazek’s, in part because of the soft goals Darling continued to give up and in part because his teammates played in constant and obvious fear of the soft goals Darling continued to give up.

It was all too predictable Saturday when McElhinney got a night off against the New York Islanders and the Hurricanes gave up two quick goals, with even Jaccob Slavin uncharacteristically turned inside out. Even if Darling was absolved of blame for those two, he didn’t distinguish himself the rest of the way, either. It was a dismal overall performance by the Hurricanes, but those happen far more frequently when Darling is in net.

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney talks about his play with the Canes and goalie Scott Darling being placed on waivers after the Canes' practice Nov. 29 2018 at Raleigh Center Ice.

Even after the Islanders debacle, the Hurricanes were prepared to keep Darling around as they head west for a week after Friday’s home game against the Anaheim Ducks, but McElhinney’s performance in Tuesday’s win in Montreal further solidified his position, and it became increasingly clear there just wasn’t going to be enough games and practice ice to go around over the next stretch.

The Hurricanes are effusive in their praise of how much they enjoy playing in front of McElhinney, and read into the absence of any of that about Darling what you will. There’s no question their play on the ice does a lot of the talking by itself.

Putting Darling on waivers leaves the Hurricanes in the relatively awkward position of hoping McElhinney can sustain this form and Mrazek can bounce back from injury, but it’s a position they would rather navigate then this increasingly awkward three-goalie tandem, especially given how hard McElhinney and Mrazek work in practice.

And if it’s now up to Darling to salvage his career – assuming he clears waivers and is assigned to the AHL as planned – well, he’s done it before. He was kicked off the team at Maine and went unsigned by the NHL team that originally drafted him. He worked his way back up from the bottom, from the SPHL to the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL.

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling discusses a 4-3 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings at PNC Arena on Nov. 10, 2018. Darling allowed two third-period goals as the Wings rallied to win.

That’s the hard-working player the Hurricanes thought they were getting, not the one that showed up last year inexplicably out of shape and helped submarine their season. If Darling hadn’t gotten hurt at the end of a very good preseason after a summer spent working out in an attempt to rehabilitate his game and image, maybe things would have been different. But he was never able to recapture his September form and things ended up right back where they were a year ago.

Maybe he’s only able to play and practice at his best when he’s the underdog, not the anointed. Make no mistake, he’s the underdog again now. Whatever opportunities he was given by the Hurricanes – to be a leader and a star and a franchise savior – he has now officially and thoroughly squandered. Whatever other chances he gets here, if any, he’ll have to earn.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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