Luke DeCock

William Nylander, Scott Darling and the Canes-Leafs drama far from the ice

Boston Bruins’ Kevan Miller (86) battles Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander (29) during the first period of Game 5 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Boston, Saturday, April 21, 2018. The Maple Leafs won 4-3.
Boston Bruins’ Kevan Miller (86) battles Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander (29) during the first period of Game 5 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Boston, Saturday, April 21, 2018. The Maple Leafs won 4-3.

Somehow, before the Carolina Hurricanes’ stirring 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, all the attention was on two guys who didn’t even play as the immediate future of the Hurricanes’ goaltending situation crossed paths with their pursuit of unsigned Toronto restricted free agent William Nylander. Not all the drama was on the ice.

Scott Darling’s absence from practice on Tuesday – a day off after a day off, curious to say the least – signaled Rod Brind’Amour’s intention to go with Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek for the time being, with McElhinney getting the start as a reward for his performance Sunday and posting an excellent win Wednesday night against his former team, and that duo expected to split this weekend’s back-to-back with Mrazek apparently ready to return from injury.

Which isn’t to say that Darling, who dressed as the backup Wednesday, is permanently out of the picture – while he hasn’t played terribly, he continues to give up back-breaking soft goals and has yet to regain the form he showed late in the preseason before getting hurt – but it’s not a good sign when you’re sent home from practice so the other two guys can get the work. For now, he’s the odd man out.

If that situation seems murky, it’s nothing compared to Nylander, who has been unable to agree on a new contract with the Leafs and faces a Dec. 1 deadline to sign or sit out the rest of the season. The dynamics of those negotiations are complicated enough; the potential dynamics of a trade to the Hurricanes are even more byzantine.

From an on-ice perspective, it’s a no-brainer: Nylander, a 22-year-old coming off a pair of 61-point seasons, is the kind of skilled forward the Hurricanes desperately crave and they have a surplus of the heavy-duty right-shot defensemen the Leafs lack.

There’s an obvious framework for a trade that includes one of Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton or Brett Pesce, a prospect not named Martin Necas or Adam Fox, and a lottery-protected first-round pick -- if that’s enough to get the Leafs to make a deal

It’s not quite as simple beyond that. First, there’s Nylander himself: Can he potentially be the center the Hurricanes really need, or is he a better fit on the wing at 6 feet, 191 pounds? Not that the Hurricanes couldn’t use the latter, but they’d be giving up a lot of the ammunition that could potentially be used to acquire a center at some point.

Then there’s the Leafs: Even if a package like that is enough, would they let Nylander go to an Eastern Conference team? The Hurricanes pursued center Ryan O’Reilly and goalie Philipp Grubauer over the summer, and both were traded out of the east and to Western Conference teams instead.

Finally, there’s the money. While the Hurricanes have ample cap space at the moment – they’re $16.1 million under the $79.5 million cap as of Wednesday afternoon – they’re going to use a bunch of it re-signing Sebastian Aho and potentially Micheal Ferland regardless of whether they can swing a deal for Nylander. Just because they have a ton of cap space today, it doesn’t mean they can recklessly overpay for Nylander.

And whatever they would give Nylander, they’re going to have to give Aho at least that much. That’s probably less of an issue than it was at the start of the year, as Aho continues to print money with his performance, but cap space would still evaporate in a hurry. If the Hurricanes had to go to the top end of the scale to sign both Nylander and Aho – approaching the ridiculous $8.5 million per season the Edmonton Oilers gave Leon Draisaitl – suddenly the Hurricanes are a cap team and re-signing Ferland becomes a lot trickier even as other contracts come off the books.

Which brings the discussion back to Darling, who is making $4.15 million with two more years left to run on his deal. If Mrazek and McElhinney end up locking down the net, the Darling contract becomes an even bigger anchor than it was already, and there will be even more incentive to find a way out from under it sooner rather than later – whether the Hurricanes can make a deal for Nylander or not.

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