The 29-year-old goaltender dropped nearly 30 pounds during the offseason, thanks to a grueling workout regimen and an overhauled diet. He hovers now between 220 and 225 pounds and is leaner, faster, healthier, energetic.
He's also confident he'll eliminate doubts about him, based on his subpar performance last season. He believes he'll be a main reason why the Hurricanes will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 instead of being the reason they won't.
"The way I feel physically, mentally, emotionally, I mean, I just feel great," Darling said. "I feel back to the way I felt my first year in the League, 2014-15, with [the] Chicago [Blackhawks]."
Darling called it a 180-degree turn from last season, when he weighed 250 pounds and was nowhere close to being the goalie the Hurricanes thought they were getting when they signed the former Blackhawks' backup to a four-year, $16.6 million contract (average annual value $4.15 million) to be their No. 1.
Video: CAR@PHI: Darling knocks down Giroux's one-timer
Darling started 40 games. He didn't miss any time because of an injury; he just wasn't good enough to play more; he went 13-21-7 with an .888 save percentage, a 3.18 goals-against average and no shutouts.
That was after an impressive three-season run as Corey Crawford's backup in Chicago, where he went 39-17-9 with a .923 save percentage and 2.37 GAA in 75 appearances, including 64 starts.
"It was a rough year," Darling said. "It was a lonely, kind of depressing year."
It wasn't easy for anyone around the Hurricanes either, rooting for Darling to succeed only to watch him try and fail time and again.
"It was hard to watch," coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "I think he'd say the same thing, he kind of just shut down, which is the worst thing to do. He could never get out of it."
Asked to explain what happened, Darling described himself as exhaling after signing with Carolina instead of continuing along the same path that got him to being a multi-million-dollar player in the first place.
"It was like, 'OK, I'm here, it's all going to happen now,' " Darling said. "I didn't train hard last summer. I didn't do pretty much anything. I kind of just relished in getting the contract and getting what was supposed to be the starting job."
Darling said he disregarded what he learned from former teammates in Chicago.
"I always laughed when I played with guys like [center Jonathan] Toews and [forward Patrick] Kane and [defenseman] Duncan Keith because they had it all, all the money, but they still worked, still did everything," Darling said. "They didn't change what got them to where they're at. Now I know why."
Darling's 180 started in May, when he went to the 2018 IIHF World Championship for the United States as the backup to New Jersey Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid. Darling played in two games, got a win and had a 2.25 GAA. The U.S. defeated Canada 4-1 to win the bronze medal.
"That was an awesome experience," Darling said. "Finishing my season on a high note and having fun playing hockey really got me into a good mental space for the summer."
He spent three weeks after the tournament vacationing in Europe and Egypt with his girlfriend, Jaclyn, before returning to Raleigh, North Carolina, to reinvent himself.
Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin, who also spent the summer in Raleigh, said he could sense a different mentality with Darling immediately.
"Even just in practices he was making saves that he wasn't making last year," Slavin said.
Darling credits Jaclyn for changing his eating habits.
"She taught me how to eat healthy and have it taste good," he said. "I didn't know that existed."
He never went grocery shopping last season, always favoring the quick meal out. This summer, he and Jaclyn, who moved to Raleigh full-time after living in Chicago last season, ate almost every meal at home, except for the odd date nights, Darling said.
They made discoveries.
"If you want ranch dressing, you can make healthy ranch dressing," Darling said. "If you want mayonnaise, you can substitute it for vegannaise. Switching from Coke to Coke Zero is a huge thing. Instead of eating regular ice cream, now I eat Halo ice cream.
"I couldn't believe it because I still got to eat ice cream and drink soda and I lost 30 pounds."
He discovered Pilates. He took up boxing.
"Those were some of the hardest workouts I've ever done," he said.
The difference is noticeable, not just in his slender physique but in his goaltending.
"He's a lot cleaner, a lot smoother in all his movements," Carolina goaltending coach Mike Bales said. "Especially for a big guy, 6-foot-6, he's very athletic and that's a big part of his game, battling for pucks. He's able to react off his feet, gap-up a little better and use his big frame to cover more net than he was able to last year."
The next step for Darling is proving it in the regular season, when he can change the minds of all those who lost faith in him after thinking he had so much promise a season ago.
"I will be the guy this year that I was signed to be for this team," Darling said.