Florida Panthers: Scott Darling’s PTO gives him one last NHL chance

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Scott Darling has one last NHL chance with the Florida Panthers.

In June of 2017, former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Scott Darling posted a story on the Players Tribune, entitled “Goodbye, Chicago.”

Among other things, it detailed his career prior to and during his three years with the Blackhawks, from his days as a starting goalie at the University of Maine to ending up as an emergency goalie for a number of different minor league teams, to his time with the Hawks backing up Corey Crawford, to now back at square one, after signing a PTO with the Florida Panthers last Sunday.

Darling’s path to the NHL was a long and winding one, to say the least, and to this day, he is the only SPHL player to make the NHL, having played for the Louisiana IceGators and the Mississippi Riverkings in 2010-11 and 2011-12. After posting a 13-6 record with 6 shutouts for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals in 2013-14, Darling signed with Chicago on a one-year deal, eventually usurping Antti Raanta as Crawford’s backup. He would go on to become one of the NHL’s more reliable 2nd options, posting an 18-5-5 record in 2016-17, as Crawford struggled to stay healthy throughout the season.

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Following a first-round sweep in that year’s playoffs, and with Darling set to become a UFA, his rights were traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2017 NHL draft. With the Hurricanes planning to move on from long-time starter Cam Ward, the team hoped that Darling would be their goalie of the future. Sadly, this never truly panned out, as Darling struggled behind a weaker Hurricanes team as compared to the once Cup contending roster of the Blackhawks. While his first season was underwhelming at best with a 13-21 record and a 3.21 GAA, the additions of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney made Darling expendable, being sent down to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. After further struggles there, and a personal leave of absence from the team, Darling was traded to and subsequently released by the Florida Panthers, in a deal that netted the Hurricanes James Reimer.

After spending this past season in Austria with Innsbruck HC, struggling once more with a 3.34 GAA over 33 games, Darling now finds himself with another NHL chance in Florida. In a 2019-20 season that saw the Panthers on pace to post their best record since 2015-16, goaltending was one of their bigger weaknesses. Similar to Darling’s stint in Carolina, long-time Columbus Blue Jackets starter Sergei Bobrovsky was signed to a seven-year deal worth $70 million, to bring stability in net to a Panthers team that had yet to find a reliable first option. Instead, Bobrovsky posted the worst GAA of his career with a bloated 3.23 and 23-19-6 record. While the Panthers still managed a playoff spot with a 35-26-8 record, Bobrovsky was wildly inconsistent once more in the post-season, as Florida fell in the qualifying rounds to the New York Islanders.

Darling’s addition comes as a surprise to many who thought that the now 33-year-old Virginia native’s chances were over following his buyout and subsequent release. While having proven himself as a solid option for the Hawks, he was playing behind a Chicago team that was, as stated, one of the strongest in the NHL. While the Hurricanes managed a massive turnaround in 2018-19 under head coach Rod Brind’Amour, Darling simply never found his groove in Carolina, with numerous infamous examples. Along with his personal leave of absence from the team, Darling made a lengthy post on social media detailing his struggle over his time in Carolina and the future ahead of him as he remained unsigned.

While he found a home with Innsbruck, the team stumbled to a 15-30-5 record behind Darling, prior to the season’s abrupt cancellation due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Now with the NHL season set to get underway on January 13th, Darling finds himself with one last chance to see NHL ice once more. While his rise and subsequent fall from grace is something that simply hasn’t been seen in hockey, Darling is still a talented goaltender, possessing solid athleticism, movement, and reflexes. However, mentally, Darling has struggled, as evidenced by failing to post a GAA below 3.00 since his time with the Hawks. One of the main aspects of goaltending is mental preparation, and Darling’s chances with Florida boil down to whether he is mentally prepared, as we’ve already witnessed his physical abilities in net, particularly in Chicago.

Florida has seemingly already found themselves a solid second option in long-time Ottawa Senators farmhand Chris Driedger, who stepped in nicely with a 7-2 record and 2.05 GAA. Similar to Darling, Driedger had been a career minor leaguer who hadn’t seen NHL action since 2016-17, with both appearances coming in relief. While it seems unlikely Darling will be able to usurp Driedger, I wouldn’t count out his NHL chances entirely just yet. Recent seasons have showcased that anything can happen with PTO players, with some getting second chances in either the NHL or posting rather impressive seasons in the AHL. David Booth and Devin Setoguchi were feel good-stories with their comebacks with the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings, respectively, and AHL journeyman Scott Sabourin defied the odds with the Ottawa Senators last season, making his NHL debut in a fourth-line role.

While most PTO’s are simply done for either minor publicity or for the opportunity, I wouldn’t count Darling out just yet. With plans set for the AHL season to start on February 5th, Darling could find himself with an AHL contract should his PTO lead nowhere, with former New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks backup Jean-Francois Berube signing an AHL deal with the Ontario Reign on Saturday. Having an experienced veteran to help mentor a rookie on a weaker AHL team is something that could be beneficial, with the Panthers possessing some of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL, if this year’s World Juniors are anything to go by. 2020 seventh-round pick Devon Levi and 2019 first-round pick Spencer Knight have helped lead Team Canada and Team USA respectively to the tournament semi-finals, posting impressive numbers, and should become integral parts of Florida’s pipeline.

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Should this AHL season resume, Darling could bring a veteran presence to a Springfield Thunderbirds team that has heavily leaned on depth performances since their initial season in 2016-17, now being host to prospects like Levi and Knight. While this PTO could simply be another brief audition for a once talented goalie, Darling could defy the odds, as has been the case for his entire career. It was a wild ride to get to the NHL for Scott Darling, and while it’s unlikely, I believe this final chance, could prove just as interesting.