Etched into the skin on Scott Darling’s right arm, just above the elbow, is the Chicago skyline, with one notable addition — the Stanley Cup, front and center, wedged between the Willis Tower and the Hancock Center. A Chicago flag waves in the foreground.
All Darling, who grew up in Lemont, ever wanted was to play in the NHL. To win a Stanley Cup with his hometown team was a dream too preposterous to even consider.
“I wouldn’t change a second of my time in Chicago,” Darling said last Saturday. “It’s been bar none the best three years of my life. I loved every second. They’ve been so great to me, my teammates, coaching staff, front office — everybody has been amazing, and I wouldn’t change a minute.”
After finishing up that last press scrum of the season, Darling took a little extra time to shake some hands and say some good-byes. It was time for the next challenge — to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. It’s something Darling has earned, but something that simply couldn’t happen in Chicago, with his close friend and mentor Corey Crawford in the way.
He didn’t want to say it, but it was almost a certainty that his Blackhawks career was done.
It became official Friday, as the Hawks dealt Darling, a pending unrestricted free agent, to the Hurricanes for a third-round pick in the June draft. So the Hawks get an extra pick for a guy they were going to lose anyway, and the Hurricanes get exclusive negotiating rights with Darling until July 1.
He could command $4 million or more per season on his next contract, and the Hawks never considered trading the two-time Stanley Cup-winning Crawford just to save a couple million dollars and to get just four years younger at the position.
Darling, 28, made an inspirational climb to the NHL from the Southern Professional Hockey League after overcoming a drinking problem that nearly derailed his career.
He played a key role in the Hawks’ 2015 Stanley Cup run. After relieving a struggling Crawford in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Predators, he made 42 saves in a double-overtime victory that will go down in Hawks lore as the greatest relief performance in franchise history. He won three games in the series before Crawford took the net back in Game 6.
Darling went 39-17-9 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.37 goals-against average in three seasons with the Hawks, ably filling in for Crawford whether it was a spot start or a longer injury-replacement stint.
“I’ve paid my dues as a backup, and when I’ve had a chance to play consecutive games, I’ve shown that I can do it,” Darling said.
Now he’ll get his chance. If Carolina signs him, he’ll compete with Eddie Lack or Cam Ward or both, depending on what the Hurricanes do next, for the top spot.
Darling’s departure, while inevitable, still is alarming, as the Hawks are perilously thin in goal.
After Crawford, the next goalie in line is journeyman Jeff Glass, who has never played in the NHL and spent seven seasons in the KHL. Lars Johansson and Mac Carruth are unrestricted free agents, so the Hawks might have to look elsewhere for a new backup. They’ve had the luxury of having Darling and Antti Raanta the last several seasons, both of whom have proved they can handle a No. 1 job.
“Goaltending’s always a priority,” coach Joel Quenne-ville said.
”[Darling] really did give us some outstanding goaltending this year and throughout the years here. . . . He’s earned the opportunity to get the next challenge or the next step.”
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