NEW YORK — In the two-plus years before he finally found his way to Chicago, Scott Darling bounced from Louisiana to Mississippi to Florida to Kansas to West Virginia to Ontario to Wisconsin to Ohio to Rockford.
“This is the longest I’ve played for one team in quite some time,” Darling said. “Honestly, it might be the longest I’ve [ever] played for a team. It’s been nice. I’m enjoying it.”
So it’s perfectly understandable why Darling isn’t thinking about what comes next, why he’s choosing to live in the moment. But the Blackhawks backup goaltender will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and due a significant raise from the bargain-basement $587,500 cap hit he currently carries. It’s perhaps a raise the Hawks can’t afford, given their cap issues and their desire to sign Artemi Panarin to a contract extension.
Darling has a .924 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average in 56 NHL appearances. He has won a playoff series, briefly grabbing the net from Corey Crawford in the first-round series against Nashville during the 2015 Stanley Cup run. He’s had four stints now as a de facto starter during various Crawford injuries, and has looked every bit the part of an NHL starter each time, getting considerably better the more frequently he plays.
And his latest run as a No. 1 has been quite the audition for any teams that might be looking for a new goalie next season. Darling has allowed three goals in his last four starts while Crawford recovers from an appendectomy.
Darling bristled at the idea.
“I’m auditioning for the Blackhawks right now,” the Lemont native said following his latest brilliant effort, a 33-save 2-1 victory over the high-flying Rangers. “I want to be a Blackhawk. Nobody knows what’s going to happen at the end of the year, especially me. All I know is, if I don’t play good, it’s not going to be easy to be here, or be in the NHL.”
It’s an interesting spot for Darling. He loves playing for his hometown team, and he’s close friends with Crawford. But nobody wants to be a career backup. Every goalie harbors dreams of being the No. 1. And Crawford is one of the best and most accomplished goalies in the league, signed through the 2019-2020 season.
Darling can be a starter somewhere. But it won’t be in Chicago. Not anytime soon.
“I think everybody who’s made it this far hopes to one day be that guy who the team relies on,” said another former Hawks backup, Antti Raanta, who’s been making waves in New York by temporarily supplanting Henrik Lundqvist as the Rangers’ No. 1. “That’s the dream, always.”
The grass isn’t always greener, though. Darling acknowledged that Chicago is “bar none, the best place to be” a backup in the NHL. And plenty of goalies over the years have moved on to other teams to be a No. 1, and faltered. Brian Elliott left his timeshare in St. Louis to be the man in Calgary, and he currently has a .885 save percentage and a 3.31 GAA, losing the starting job to Chad Johnson.
Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff — a guy who could use a new goalie, given the mediocrity of his current duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi — said he thinks Darling can be a No. 1. But it was hardly a full-throated endorsement.
“It’s always hard to project on a different team,” Ruff said. “I still think [in Chicago] you’ve got three of the best defensemen in the league that you’re surrounding your goaltender with, and you put him in a market where you don’t have that, it’s always an interesting scenario. You throw in Campbell in the mix now you’ve got four of six who are world-class defensemen.”
He’s not wrong. But anyone who’s watched the Hawks over the past season-plus has seen Crawford and Darling bail out the rest of the team more often than they’ve bailed out the goalie.
Panarin’s future will be the dominant storyline this spring. But Darling’s situation will be every bit as fascinating. The Chicago kid wants to stay with the team that finally have him a chance. But he also wants to be a No. 1. Everyone does. How it all shakes out come June and July is anybody’s guess.
“I’m not too focused on any of it, because hockey’s a fast game and things change real quick,” Darling said. “Who knows what’s going to happen between now and the end of the season?”