The inescapable, franchise-history-making reality of Scott Darling is that he is a very large man. And not merely tall, either. He is all of the 6-foot-6 at which he is listed, but he is broad as well, burly but not husky, making him an imposing figure in a way a basketball player of the same height is not.
In that respect, his size makes him the epitome of the modern NHL goalie, yet another avatar of a trend that started taking hold when Patrick Roy first flopped down into the butterfly stance and has slowly taken over the league. It’s a trend the Hurricanes were among the last to adopt, but it’s here now in the outsized visage of Darling, even if his quiet and self-effacing personality ends up being the yin to that yang.
So Darling’s first official practice in a Carolina uniform on Friday represented something bigger than a changing of the guard in goal, although it certainly did that. When it comes to size in net, the Hurricanes have caught up with the rest of the league.
Being on the short side was once seen as an advantage for a goalie, nimbleness and flexibility being prized over bulk – especially at a time when big goalies were often gawky and prone to toppling over. With the ubiquity of the butterfly, where goalies use their leg pads horizontally to block the surface of the ice and their body to block the upper half of the net, size suddenly offered a tremendous advantage: bigger pads and more surface area. And as the NHL has worked to shrink the Michelin Man goalie gear that plagued the league during its pre-lockout Dead Puck Era, a bigger frame has gained even more currency.
You can’t coach speed and you can’t coach size. Of the 30 starting goalies in the NHL last season, a full third were listed at 6-4 or taller, and that doesn’t include 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop, who lost the starting job in Tampa Bay and was traded. The Hurricanes’ Cam Ward, at 6-1, was in a five-way tie for smallest – a group that also includes Henrik Lundqvist, perhaps the last great goalie of what was once considered moderate stature.
Even in an era when small skaters get more opportunity than ever – Edmonton took 5-foot-7 Kailer Yamamoto in the first round of the draft in June – small goalies have become extinct. The days when someone like Arturs Irbe, a 5-foot-8 tangle of sinew and fast-twitch muscle, could claim an NHL net are over, no matter how acrobatic. Over the past four seasons, only one Vezina Trophy finalist has been shorter than 6-2. Over the previous four, there were four, including Tim Thomas, who won the Vezina twice at 5-foot-11.
There’s a long list of great goalies at that height or shorter in hockey history, but these days, they would have to be truly exceptional just to get drafted, maybe even to get a look from a college or junior team. Hurricanes broadcaster Tripp Tracy was drafted out of Harvard at 5-foot-10. Today? “No way,” Tracy said Friday.
To this point in Hurricanes history, size in net has been the exception rather than the rule, and not just Ward and Irbe. Sean Burke was a giant in his era, but at 6-4 he’s merely above average by today’s standards, as Eddie Lack was. Darling has two inches on both of them. Kevin Weekes was considered to be reasonably tall in the prime of his career, but at 6-2 he’d be in the bottom third of the NHL now.
There’s evidence that, leaguewide, the wave maybe starting to crest. Ten years ago, NHL teams wouldn’t consider using a decent draft pick on a goalie under 6-foot-4 and raw height was the craze. Even the Hurricanes, who haven’t had a ton of size in net at the NHL level, have drafted only one goalie shorter than 6-foot-3 since 2008. The trend was all that direction until the past few drafts, when NHL teams have appeared more willing to look at the wider pool of goalies closer to 6 feet, if not under. It has become clear that while some height is necessary to do the job in the modern game, an excess of it may not be necessary. As those players start to filter through to the NHL, the average height may even decline an inch or two.
Still, even if the the trend toward the truly gargantuan appears to be abating, there’s no question 6 feet is where the bar is set, higher than it ever has been. The goalies of the future may not be Darling’s size, but they’re all going to be as big or bigger than Ward, here and elsewhere.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock