As the final buzzer sounds off signaling the end of the game, Scott Darling gets up from his knees off the ice. At a score of five-to-one, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Edmonton Oilers for their fifth straight win and eighth win in their last 11 games. But more importantly for Darling, it was his 13th win of the season, a new career-high for the goalie. He gets up from his crease, with Trevor van Reimsdyk skating over to give the netminder a fistbump and a tap on the head. Darling has arguably been the best backup in the league and whenever he subs in for Corey Crawford, he gives the Blackhawks a chance to win every night. But from his amazing season, Darling might just be playing himself right out of Chciago.
Drafted in the sixth round by the Coyotes in the 2007 draft, Darling spent many years toiling in the minors before finding himself in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. After dominating in the AHL for the Milwaukee Admirals, Darling would get called up to the big leagues in 2014 and has stayed there ever since.
In his debut season, Darling only played in a handful of games, but he quickly made the most of them. Through 14 games, Darling posted nine wins and an impressive .936 save percentage. And while in the next season his save percentage would dip to .915 over 29 games, Darling has bounced back as one of the top goalies again this season.
Playing in 25 games this year, Darling has arguably been one of the best goalies in the league. With a sparkling .929 save percentage, Darling is tied for the second highest save percentage in the entire league (behind only Devan Dubnyk’s insane .933 save percentage). He even beats out Corey Crawford’s numbers, as Crawford only holds a .917 save percentage through 40 games this season. Not to mention, over the past three seasons, Darling has the fourth highest save percentage in the NHL with a .924 save percentage, ahead of goalies such as Braden Holtby, Cory Schneider, and once again Corey Crawford.
But with this stellar play comes some consequences for the Blackhawks. Similar to how Artemi Panarin’s success forced a bigger payday when his contract was up, the Blackhawks are going to be faced with a similar situation by the end of the season with Darling. This year, Darling only carries a $587,500 cap hit but his contract ends at the conclusion of this season. As an unrestricted free agent, Darling will see a big raise soon, whether its from the Blackhawks or another team. But despite the young goaltender being worth the raise, the Blackhawks just aren’t in a financial situation where they can afford allocating a lot of money towards a backup goalie.
However, there will be plenty of other teams willing to give Darling a hefty raise, especially considering that he can be signed in free agency without having to surrender extra assets. Just last year over the offseason, the Florida Panthers handed James Reimer a five-year, $17 million contract, averaging out to a $3.4 million cap hit per year. And Reimer has a career .914 save percentage; Darling has a career .924 save percentage.
Another outstanding season from Darling is obviously great for the Blackhawks this year, as he provides a great option in net for when Crawford needs a break (or if he gets hurt, such as earlier in the year). However, it’s going to be hard for the Blackhawks to retain him after this season if he keeps up this level of play. Like it or not, Darling might just be playing himself right out of the Blackhawks organization.