Luke DeCock

Changes in goal leave Hurricanes gambling, still

Detroit Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek (34) stops a Montreal Canadiens shot in the first period of an NHL hockey game on March 24, 2016, in Detroit.
Detroit Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek (34) stops a Montreal Canadiens shot in the first period of an NHL hockey game on March 24, 2016, in Detroit. AP

No one — not Tom Dundon, not Don Waddell, not Rod Brind'Amour and not anyone left on the Carolina Hurricanes' roster — wanted to go into the season with Petr Mrazek and Scott Darling in goal.

Mrazek has been good at points in his young NHL career. He has also been very bad at others. Of the options still available after the Hurricanes lost out on Philipp Grubauer, they thought he was the best.

“The free-agent market was what it was,” said Waddell, the Hurricanes' general manager. “There was nobody that had been a starter in the league, except for Petr.”

There have been a lot of years when the Hurricanes were observers on July 1, but few have felt as empty as Sunday, when the rest of the roster is generating increasing optimism and the net remains a sinkhole of pessimism.

This tandem is less than ideal, and it certainly wasn't the plan going into the off-season.

If the Washington Capitals had been willing to trade Grubauer within the division, he would be here now, and everyone could feel pretty good about that. The Hurricanes' offer was better than the one the Capitals eventually took from the Colorado Avalanche.

If they had found anyone to take Darling off their hands, they might have been able to keep Cam Ward and pursue other options. In the end, Dundon made a business decision: A potential Darling comeback, unlikely as that may be, was worth more than flushing $8 million down the toilet to buy him out.

"Scott Darling did not have a good season for us," Waddell said. "He came last year to camp, he was out of shape, he never got in shape all year. I met with him on Thursday, actually, and he's got a new outlook in his personal life and his professional life."

So Ward was allowed to leave for the Chicago Blackhawks after 13 years of service and the Hurricanes were left with leftovers, playing video poker trying to make the mortgage payment.

That's where the Hurricanes are: hoping Darling can get back in some kind of shape, mentally and physically, where he can at least resemble an NHL goaltender once in a while, and hoping Mrazek, only 26, can hit the heights he hit three years ago with the Detroit Red Wings and not stumble along with a .901 save percentage like the past two years, although even that would be an improvement on Darling last year.

Here's the good news: Darling was so bad last year, it's hard to imagine him playing any worse. (By one advanced metric, he had one of the four worst seasons by a goalie who appeared in half his team's games in the past 20 years — and one of the 25 worst seasons since the '50s.) Mrazek is on a low-risk, one-year deal making only $1.5 million.

As the team improves in front of them, the goalies don't have to be that much better to make a difference. If they can get 30 semi-competent games out of Darling and something in the .910 range from Mrazek, that might be enough.

The Hurricanes had a team save percentage of .893 last season, worst in the NHL, while playing behind a set of skaters that dominated the possession statistics on a regular basis. Turning the many chances they generated into goals was a problem, one presumably ameliorated by the blue-line skill of Dougie Hamilton and the arrival of Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov. Keeping the fewer chances they allowed out of their net was an even bigger problem.

Goaltending doesn't necessarily have to be a strength — although that would be nice, for a change, after all the games the Hurricanes were down 2-0 early after outshooting the opposition 14-3 — but it can't be a fatal weakness. Again. Mrazek may not win a bunch of games for the Hurricanes, but if he doesn't lose them all the time, that would be a step in the right direction.

That's a lot of crossing fingers and tossing coins in wells, but the way the goalie market broke down this summer, it's the best the Hurricanes could do.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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