Next season, Scott Darling will earn $575,000 while playing goal for the Blackhawks. It’s a terrific bargain for Chicago. It’s just as good for Darling.
In the summer of 2012, Darling was making $15 an hour working at a Woburn goalie camp. He was 23 years old and had no college degree. He hadn’t played a single game in the AHL. He posted bad numbers in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“I’m going to work you a lot,” Brian Daccord, president of Stop It Goaltending, recalled telling Darling at the time. “I don’t want you with idle time. I’m going to work you a lot. You’re going to train hard and get yourself back going again.”
Daccord wasn’t just Darling’s boss. Daccord had known Darling since he was a teenage camper, traveling every summer to Woburn from his home near Chicago.
Even before Darling secured a scholarship to play at the University of Maine, Daccord identified the goalie’s potential. He was big. He was quick. He handled the puck well.
But Darling liked to drink. Daccord didn’t understand the depth of Darling’s problem, but he knew enough to sit Darling down the summer before his freshman season at Maine.
“I see you as the guy who’s going to be looking for a job every summer,” Daccord told Darling. “Someone’s going to sign you. Athletically, you can do it. But you’re not on the road to being that guy who makes $5 million a year in the NHL. You have that in front of you. But you’re not going down that path at all.”
Daccord was right. Darling posted sub-.900 save percentages in his first two years at Maine. Tim Whitehead, Maine’s coach at the time, booted Darling off the team after his sophomore season because of his drinking. Darling didn’t do anything of note in the SPHL, where goalies with any kind of talent don’t stay long.
Darling, picked by the Coyotes in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, owned a golden ticket. He was intent on ripping it to bits.
Matt Keator, Darling’s agent, saw a career window about to close.
“I didn’t want him to be 40 years old, sitting on the back step, and kicking himself for not going for it,” Keator said. “Here he was, 22 years old at the time and out of hockey. It finally clicked for him. He got some help. He started listening.”
In the summer of 2011, Darling quit drinking. He started a process of losing 40 pounds. The next offseason, Keator convinced Clark Donatelli, coach of the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers, to watch Darling play in the Foxborough summer league. In 2012-13, Darling went 13-12-4 with a 2.80 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage for Wheeling. It wasn’t enough to get him work for 2013-14.
That is, until Mitch Korn called Daccord.
Korn, then Nashville’s goalie coach, wanted Daccord’s input on two candidates to serve as the organization’s fifth goalie.
“Quite frankly,” Daccord answered, “I like the guy in my 4 o’clock group over those two guys.”
Daccord told Korn about Darling. Daccord offered to tape Darling’s session and post it on YouTube for Korn to watch. Korn agreed. After viewing the session and making background calls, Korn traveled to Boston to meet Darling. Darling agreed to a one-year, two-way deal between Milwaukee (AHL) and Cincinnati (ECHL).
Because of Pekka Rinne’s complications following hip surgery, Nashville’s goalies moved up one rung, including Darling. He went 13-6-2 with a 2.00 GAA and a .933 save percentage for Milwaukee, including six shutouts.
The Predators wanted Darling on an AHL deal for 2014-15. Darling declined and signed a one-year, two-way contract with Chicago.
Darling made his NHL debut on Oct. 26 against Ottawa, stopping 32 of 33 shots in a 2-1 win.
In Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against Nashville, Darling relieved Corey Crawford in the second period. Darling stopped all 42 shots to lead Chicago to a 4-3, double-overtime win.
Darling’s postseason run could end. Chicago could go back with Crawford. But for at least one season, Darling has been a legitimate NHL goalie.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” Daccord said. “It’s singlehandedly the best part of coaching — seeing someone you’ve worked with over a long period of time make it.”
Sharks eager to make moves this offseason
Last summer, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson predicted that 2014-15 would be a transition season.
This summer, as he seeks a coach to replace Todd McLellan, Wilson will be just as busy targeting veterans.
Next season, Wilson pledged, will not be like the one that ended with McLellan’s mutually agreed-upon departure.
“Do we expect to be a playoff team? Yes, we do,” Wilson said in a news conference on Monday. “Do we think we’re trending up? Yes, we do.”
Last summer, the Sharks could have bulked up for another playoff run. Wilson didn’t go that way. He re-signed Mike Brown. He signed John Scott. He acquired Tye McGinn from Philadelphia for a 2015 third-rounder. He does not plan to be as patient this offseason.
During his news conference, Wilson cited a cornerstone acquisition: Joe Thornton. On Nov. 30, 2005, Wilson traded Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau to the Bruins for Thornton. By using that as an example, Wilson pledged he would be fine with ceding assets if similar impact players became available.
Wilson has exercised creativity and aggressiveness before. On July 9, 2010, he signed Niklas Hjalmarsson to a four-year, $14 million offer sheet. The Blackhawks matched. But it caused issues downstream. Later that summer, Antti Niemi scored a one-year, $2.75 million decision in arbitration. Chicago declined to accept the decision and cut ties with Niemi. Wilson then signed Niemi to a one-year, $2 million contract.
Wilson could raid the Blackhawks again. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will start to earn $10.5 million annually apiece. Brandon Saad will require a raise coming off his entry-level contract. Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell are at risk of being moved.
Chicago might consider trading Corey Crawford to shed his $6 million average annual value and hand the crease over to Scott Darling and Antti Raanta. San Jose will need a starter with Niemi reaching unrestricted free agency July 1.
“It’s not always UFA,” Wilson said of the acquisition method. “We’re looking for players who’ll fit now and the future for the next four or five years. If we have to pay full value for that, that’s OK.”
With better health, the Stars may align
The Stars ended 2014-15 well. They won their last four games. In Game No. 82, Jamie Benn exploded for four points to nab the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer (35-52—87). Benn became the first player to win the scoring race without ever being the leader before season’s end.
Benn’s performance was even more significant given that he played on an injured hip that will require surgery this offseason. Benn is scheduled for a consultation on his injury on Monday.
Benn missed occasional practices and morning skates because of pain, but played in every game. According to GM Jim Nill, the medical staff gave Benn several shots during the season to manage the pain. Rehabilitation is estimated at 4-5 months, and the Stars expect Benn to be ready for training camp.
The Dallas captain is a grinding, powerful skater who protects the puck exceptionally well. His skating should be even better if the procedure and rehab go well.
Benn won’t be Dallas’s only player to undergo repairs. Ales Hemsky will also undergo hip surgery. Hemsky, who signed a three-year, $12 million contract last July, scored 11 goals and 21 assists in 76 games.
After Benn and Hemsky undergo their procedures, four Dallas players will have had hip surgery in the last year. John Klingberg and Valeri Nichushkin were the others. Klingberg was a dynamic player following his surgery. The puck-moving defenseman scored 11 goals and 29 assists in 65 games this season. His 40-point performance was enough evidence for the Stars to sign Klingberg to a seven-year, $29.75 million extension.
Nichushkin was excellent as an 18-year-old rookie in 2013-14. The 10th overall pick from the 2013 draft scored 14 goals and 20 assists in 79 games, seeing much of his time on Dallas’s top line with Benn and Tyler Seguin. But Nichushkin played in only eight games this season following his procedure, which took place in November.
The Stars will be better next season with Benn, Hemsky, and Nichushkin at full strength. But they’ll require tighter goaltending. Kari Lehtonen went 34-17-10 with a 2.94 GAA and .903 save percentage. During five-on-five play, Dallas scored 176 goals, third most in the league. But they were just as bad defensively in five-on-five situations. The Stars allowed 179 goals, third most after Edmonton and Buffalo. A lot of this was on their goalie. Lehtonen is signed through 2018 at $5.9 million annually.
Decision to make on Lucic
The following number is one reason the Bruins have a decision on whether to trade Milan Lucic: $8.5 million. It is the salary one high-powered agent estimated Lucic could score on the free market on July 1, 2016. The agent believes Lucic could hit that number because of his skill set, history, and the expected paucity of UFA options, even though longevity is rarely forecast for power forwards. If the Bruins want to extend Lucic, they’re not in position to pay him $2.5 million annually more than he’s earning now, even if they went short on term. He’s due for a better season assuming good health, both his own and that of David Krejci. If the Bruins keep Lucic, the left wing will walk after next year. It’s a tough call.
Babcock will determine Julien’s future
If the Bruins fired Claude Julien now, they’d give their coach more options to find his next job. Assuming he finds work, it would relieve the Bruins of part of their salary obligations. But the chatter around the league revolves around two reasons the Bruins have yet to let Julien go: protection and perception. They don’t want to strengthen a rival such as the Flyers, who are looking for a coach to replace Craig Berube. They also want to assure their customers that the next GM would make the call, just as CEO Charlie Jacobs and team president Cam Neely promised during their news conference explaining the decision to fire Peter Chiarelli. Julien’s eventual ouster will be hastened once Mike Babcock chooses his destination, whether it’s Detroit, Toronto, or Buffalo. But by then, the teams that miss on Babcock will execute their backup options. This could leave Julien on the outside. The Bruins would be responsible for his full freight.
Ward gets results in Germany
It didn’t take long for former Bruins assistant coach Geoff Ward to succeed in Germany. Ward won the Deutsche Eishockey Liga championship in his first season as head coach for Adler Mannheim. Ward’s team beat ERC Ingolstadt in the final. Ward’s charges included ex-Bruins Glen Metropolit and Jamie Tardif, as well as former prospect Denis Reul. Ex-NHLers Jon Rheault, Danny Richmond, Brandon Yip, Kurtis Foster, Jochen Hecht, and Steve Wagner also played for Mannheim. Former Bruin and four-year Providence College defenseman Jay Leach was Ward’s assistant. When the Bruins fire Julien, Ward would be a candidate to replace his former boss. Ward has never been an NHL head coach, but he was well-regarded as Julien’s assistant. “Geoff did an un-freaking-believable job,” said Brian Daccord, Mannheim’s goaltending coach. “The last series was a coaching battle. We were continually changing things. They’d do something. We’d do something. It was pretty impressive. He’s the real deal. And he gets the whole goalie thing.”
Backstrom showing his creative side
Nicklas Backstrom is one of the league’s best pass-first centers. But the pivot best known as Alex Ovechkin’s disher is making noise in the playoffs by shooting. Backstrom scored the overtime winner in the Capitals’ 2-1 victory over the Islanders in Game 4. Backstrom used his body to protect the puck against John Tavares, then turned and whipped a shot through traffic and past goalie Jaroslav Halak. Through five games in the series, Backstrom had three goals and three assists while averaging 21:42 of ice time, most of any Washington forward. Backstrom is known as a finesse player. But the 6-foot-1-inch, 208-pound pivot is excellent at shielding the puck from checkers by turning his back toward the net, similar to how Jaromir Jagr plays down low. Backstrom’s vision is so good that all he needs is a peek over a shoulder to read what’s coming next.
Wisest move may be to not make one
The Penguins cleaned house last summer by hiring Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston to replace Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma. So far, those moves didn’t improve the team. This will set up an even more interesting offseason if the bosses decide the players require change as well as the GM and coach. This would be hasty. The Penguins have three of the best players at their respective positions in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, who comprise $25.45 million annually of Pittsburgh’s total cap hit. Letang’s injury, caused by a late-season tumble into the boards after a Shane Doan hit, flattened the Penguins. So did the losses of Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff. Just about every team would stumble after losing three top-four defensemen. The Penguins will be fine if they find more skill and speed to fill out their bottom six. They will not be fine if they take a hammer to their roster and send out big names.
According to Sportsnet, Panthers prospect Zach Hyman will not sign with Florida. He will become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16. The Panthers picked Hyman in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Hyman had just 35 total points in his first three seasons at Michigan. As a senior, Hyman exploded for 22 goals and 32 assists in 37 games. Unless the Panthers trade the forward’s rights, they get left with nothing, which is the risk teams run with college players. This is Hyman’s right under the collective bargaining agreement . . . It’s been a pleasure watching and listening to Andy Brickley as a color analyst alongside play-by-play man John Forslund. Brickley started with the Detroit-Tampa Bay series. He was on hand for Game 4 between Montreal and Ottawa on Wednesday. Brickley is as good as any national analyst at watching the game and explaining what he sees . . . Former Boston University Terrier Alex Chiasson was sent to Ottawa’s press box after two quiet games to open Round 1. So far, it’s been hard for the 24-year-old to gain NHL traction because of his streaky offense. When his stick goes cold, Chiasson doesn’t bring enough other elements to earn his stay in the lineup. Chiasson shares this trait with fellow ex-Star Matt Fraser . . . In 1996, I covered a BU-Providence game in which Brendan Walsh and Hal Gill tangled in the postgame handshake line. Walsh is now keeping peace as a Boston police officer. Gill announced his retirement on Thursday following 1,108 career games. Gill, considered obsolete by the Bruins following the post-lockout rule changes, played for five clubs and won the Stanley Cup after leaving Boston. Nineteen years later, it’s nice to see that at least Walsh and Gill grew up and moved on to better things.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.