The Carolina Hurricanes knew they were taking a gamble when they traded for the rights of a player who was set to become an unrestricted free agent in a few short months.
That gamble paid off, as the Hurricanes locked up goaltender Scott Darling with a four-year, $16.6 million contract just a week after making the trade with Chicago.
Less than a month after their season ended, the Hurricanes are confident they've found an answer to the goaltending question that has loomed large.
In inking a long-term deal with the 28-year-old who started in a career-high 27 games for the Blackhawks in the 2016-17 season, the Canes are setting the table for Darling to emerge as a reliable starting goaltender in the NHL.
"When you look at the size of Scott - 6-6, 230-plus - and you look at the body of work he's put in to this point … you get a sense of where you think he could be and what you think he can do," said Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis. "I like the fact that he's big and competitive as hell. We feel he's ready for that opportunity and capable of succeeding."
"I was super excited when the trade happened, and my goal the whole time was to sign with Carolina," Darling said. "I'm really excited about the team that's there, and I've heard nothing but great things. Once we worked out the contract part, it was a no-brainer."
Following the trade, Darling spoke with some of the Hurricanes' front office and then sought out the advice of a few former teammates. He could have, after all, stretched this process to July 1 to gauge interest from around the league.
"I talked to Nordy and Bicks, and they had nothing but great things to say about living there. It's a big commitment to hopefully be somewhere for four years," he said. "They said everything is first-class, it's a great way of life and they love living in Carolina. That kind of put my mind at ease."
Video: Welcome to Carolina, Scott Darling!
After serving as the back-up to Corey Crawford for the majority of his three seasons in the NHL, Darling is prepared to take the next step with the Hurricanes.
"I think I'm confident because I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to learn how to be the best starter I can be. I have a good network of goalie friends, and I'm going to be picking their brains and asking for help, just trying I can do everything I can to be successful in that role."
Similar to new teammate Derek Ryan, who is one of three finalists for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, Darling's road to the NHL is winding. The Lemont, Ill., native played in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) from 2010-12 and signed a PTO with the Charlotte Checkers to serve as their back-up for two games in Feb. 2012.
Darling, a 2007 sixth-round draft pick of the Coyotes, also logged time in the ECHL, Central Hockey League (CHL) and American Hockey League (AHL) before making his NHL debut with the Blackhawks on Oct. 26, 2014.
"I did enjoy the ride. It's been great," he said. "It was definitely different, and for someone like me, it just makes me really appreciate where I'm at today. It just makes me really excited. My first call to the AHL was to the Charlotte Checkers. I've been thinking about that and how excited I was just to put on a Checkers jersey. I'm even more excited to put on a Hurricanes jersey."
Since breaking into the league, Darling has 75 NHL games to his name. He owns a lifetime 2.37 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. Even in his more limited role with Chicago, the statistics speak to his potential. Darling posted an 18-5-5 record in the 2016-17 season, and his .924 save percentage ranked tied for fifth among goalies who played in at least 25 games.
Additionally, Darling's career .923 save percentage is only bested by Carey Price (.929) among goaltenders who have played at least 75 games in that stretch. Darling also owns a career .929 even-strength save percentage, which ranks seventh in the league in the same timeframe.
"I think the last three years I learned a lot about the mental part of the game in watching Crow play every day and being lucky enough to study one of the best goalies in the world every single day and getting advice from him, teaching me how he goes about and thinks about goaltending. I learned a lot from him," Darling said. "The skills came along, too, but I think a lot of it was between the ears, and I was lucky enough to learn from one of the best."
Darling took to the crease in both meetings between Chicago and Carolina this season. The Canes got the better of Darling and the Blackhawks in a 3-2 win, but a week later in Darling's next start, he turned in a sparkling 39-save effort in a 2-1 decision for his squad.
"He put on a heck of a performance," Francis said.
The Hurricanes, who identified goaltending as an area needing attention heading into this offseason, are now turning to Darling for those types of performances on a more nightly basis as their go-to guy in the crease.
"As the talks with the agent proceeded over the course of the week, I think both sides came to realize this was a pretty good fit for him," Francis said. "I'd like to think what we have to offer here is pretty appealing, from the young hockey team, the young players we have and the direction we're going to the city that we can offer a player for him and his family to move to and settle down. There's just a lot of positives right now in our market with our hockey team, and we're fortunate that Scott saw it that way … and signed with us."