Talk about the return Justin Williams all you want. The goofy co-(no-)captaincy, too. Or Trevor van Riemsdyk, who arrived to shore up the third defensive pairing and, at 26, became the oldest person in the top six, which is nuts.
None of it really matters that much. It’s all just a coat of paint. Things look nicer, but the real change, the one that really matters for the Carolina Hurricanes, is harder to see behind his mask.
The success or failure of this team rests squarely on the broad (and elevated) shoulders of Scott Darling. And that’s the tall and short of it.
The quiet, bearded, gangly goalie is the key to this team’s future. If he can hack it, the playoff drought will almost certainly end. If he can’t, and Cam Ward ends up playing 50 games – well, Hurricanes fans have seen that movie before and know how it ends.
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As erratic, frustrating, streaky and confounding as the Hurricanes were last season, they might have made the playoffs with just average goaltending. Instead, they missed for the eighth straight season, the longest, most excruciating, most damaging drought in the NHL.
It now extends across multiple years of three coaching regimes. For all the plaudits he collects around the NHL circuit, Bill Peters’ record after three years in charge is actually worse than Kirk Muller’s. Muller was 80-80-27. Peters is 101-103-42, although that improves to 71-62-31 if you give him a free pass on his first season. Paul Maurice, post-2009, was 83-81-25 when he got axed.
The common thread among the three, besides zero playoff appearances? Ward, although it’s not all his fault, even if that’s a common sentiment among fans. There’s plenty of blame to go around, even beyond Eddie Lack. The Hurricanes have been too old when they needed to be younger, too young when they needed to be older and took far too long to assemble this group of talented players with untapped potential. Either way, the Hurricanes too often required something approaching perfection from Ward, and he could rarely deliver.
And it was always Ward. Whether by default or design, Ward has been the main guy in net for this team for the past 11 years, in which the Hurricanes have made the playoffs once. All of the other contenders for the No. 1 job – most notably John Grahame, Anton Khudobin and Lack – turned out to be pretenders. If Lack were any good, this might have been a playoff team last spring.
So now the Hurricanes try again, with Darling, whose record as a backup on one of the NHL’s best teams was stellar but who has never played more than 45 games in a season, and that when he was 19. The Hurricanes will probably need him to play at least 60, and play them well, not that Darling is taking that for granted.
“Cam and I both want to play, and just because I showed up and signed here doesn’t mean, ‘Here you go, here’s 80 games,’ ” Darling said.
But he will start Saturday’s opener against the Minnesota Wild, after missing his first scheduled preseason start with an undisclosed minor injury. In the two games he played after that, he was stellar: a 1.50 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. It’s foolish to draw sweeping conclusions from preseason because of the frequent talent disparity between game rosters, but those numbers are everything you’d expect from Darling.
If he can deliver anything close to that in real games, it’ll be a different kind of season for the Hurricanes. And if he can’t, it’ll look all too familiar.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock