Scott Darling hasn’t lost sight of just how improbable all of this — that he’s in the NHL after years of self-destruction and toiling in the lowest levels of professional hockey; that he’s a Stanley Cup champion; that he’s playing in his home city for the team he grew up idolizing.
It’s been nearly two years since the Lemont native debuted with the Blackhawks, and every now and then, it still hits him how amazing his life has become.
“I’m just excited to be here — seriously excited to be on the Chicago Blackhawks still,” Darling said. “And I just want to play the best I can whenever they give me a chance to play.”
But that’s the thing. Darling, as the Hawks’ backup goaltender, doesn’t get a whole lot of chances to play. He’s getting a nice taste of being the No. 1 goalie while Corey Crawford suits up for Team Canada at the World Cup in Toronto, but once the season starts, Darling will once again spend most games on the bench, waiting for his three or four starts a month.
It’s always been Darling’s dream to be on the Blackhawks. But it’s still also his dream to be a No. 1 goaltender. And those dreams might not be compatible. Crawford’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion, one of the top goalies in the league, only 31 years old, and signed through 2019-20 on a $6-million-a-year contract that looks more reasonable each year.
Darling, meanwhile, is in the last year of his contract. So at some point, he’s going to have to decide which dream is most important to him — being a Blackhawk, or being a No. 1.
“That’s obviously everybody’s goal, myself included,” Darling said. “But that position, that opportunity, presents itself in very different ways. It can happen a million different ways, so I don’t really know what’s going to happen. But I know if I play well, the rest takes care of itself.”
Statistically, Darling took a step back last season, his save percentage dropping from a spectacular .936 to a pedestrian .915. But every time he’s been given a chance to be an everyday player, he’s made the most of it. In 2014-15, during a four-game stretch after Crawford hurt his ankle, Darling posted a .939 save percentage in four starts, going 3-1-0. Last March, with Crawford out with an upper-body injury, Darling went 6-3-1, allowing two or fewer goals six times. And, of course, in the biggest stretch of his career, he backstopped the Hawks to a first-round series victory over the Nashville Predators, springboarding his team to a championship.
Like most goalies, the more he plays, the better Darling gets.
“Definitely last year, when I had that month where I played, it’s probably the best I felt all season,” Darling said. “You can get into a rhythm and not be as nervous about your playing time, because you’re probably going to play the next game, no matter what.”
So for now, Darling’s enjoying being the top guy in Chicago, even if it’s only for the first half of training camp. He’s trying to make the most of the added reps in practice and the larger share of preseason games (he was very sharp in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh, stopping all 23 shots he saw in a one-sided second period). But he knows when Crawford returns from the World Cup, it’s back to being a backup.
And that’s fine. For now.
Darling said he’s not worrying about his next contract or his potential as a No. 1 because if he does, he’ll suffer in the short term and undermine that future in the process. And, besides, Darling — barely five years removed from the Southern Professional Hockey League — knows better than just about anybody how quickly things can change in the hockey world.
“Look where he was two years ago,” assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. “He’s seen a lot of different scenarios in his hockey career. We’re all proud of the way he’s conducted himself on and off the ice — Chicago kid, he’s a great story. And things will take care of themselves. Just come in and play like he did [Wednesday night] and all the other stuff will take care of itself down the line.”