To say that Scott Darling has had a rollercoaster ride of a career would not do his journey justice. After playing in more leagues than most realize exist, his perseverance finally paid off when he cracked the Chicago Blackhawks’ roster in 2014-15. While he’s since moved on through a handful of other organizations, Darling has now found his way back to the franchise that saw him achieve his greatest success to date.
As onlookers attempt to rationalize why Chicago’s AHL affiliate — the Rockford IceHogs — would sign Darling to a professional tryout, surely he’s hoping to extend his career in a meaningful way. Despite all the justified reasons as to how he became a fan favourite in his hometown, it’s less than logical to assume he’ll have another chance with the Blackhawks. Besides, he’d have to make the IceHogs’ roster first, and that’s not even a sure thing at this point.
Best Backup or Beginner’s Luck?
Once in the NHL, Darling wasted little time climbing his way to the top. He helped the Blackhawks capture the 2015 Stanley Cup in his first year, proving to be as pivotal of a backup as any franchise could have asked for. He was called upon early that postseason, after Corey Crawford allowed three goals in the opening frame during Game 1 of their First Round matchup against the Nashville Predators.
Swapping Darling and Crawford was clearly the right call for coach Joel Quenneville to have made, as the Blackhawks then found a way to score four unanswered goals and ultimately won the game in double overtime. Darling’s 42-save relief performance was a major part of that pushback, and he received additional opportunities to help his team bypass the Predators that round.
Darling found his way into five games that series, earning a 3-1-0 record, .936 save percentage (SV%), and 2.28 goals against average (GAA). Solid numbers, even by starter standards. And many credit the Illinois native’s play as being the difference for his city that year. While Nashville was determined to spoil this potential dynasty, Darling’s efforts not only kept them alive but helped pave a path towards their third Stanley Cup in a six-year span.
Time to Move On
Darling would play one more season in Chicago, where his 18-5-5 record, .924 SV%, 2.38 GAA, and two shutouts in 2016-17 set him up for a healthy raise. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks opted to extract value instead of commit to another contract, as they traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina’s hope was that he’d help address their need in net, as Cam Ward was aging his way out of the starter’s role. Despite splitting the workload between the two through the 2017-18 season, that plan failed to pan out. Darling went 13-21-7, averaging more than three goals against per game and saving less than 89% of the shots he faced. It wasn’t good enough.
He would only get into eight games in 2018-19, where his individual stats were even worse than the season prior. Although he was under contract through the 2020-21 season, Darling’s time in Carolina was over when they traded him to the Florida Panthers for the purposes of a buyout in June 2019.
Where He Went Next
Despite earning professional success early on at the NHL level, it wouldn’t equate to smooth sailing from there on out for Darling. His passion for the game and personable approach to life made him an easily likable character, but his results just weren’t there when given the platform to prove himself further.
As solid of a backup as he positioned himself to be with the Blackhawks, his play faltered after being granted the opportunity to become an undisputed starter. It seemed his time in the NHL had come to an end, following his buyout. He then ended up halfway around the world, playing overseas in Austria in 2019-20.
However, Darling recently found his way back to battling for a role in the NHL. Prior to the start of the 2020-21 campaign, he signed a professional tryout contract with the Panthers. It wouldn’t go as ideally as he’d hoped, though, as Darling was released from the organization the following week.
The Panthers have pretty good depth at goaltender, so it was always going to be an uphill battle for Darling to secure a deal with the club. The 32-year-old backstop will likely look for a two-way deal elsewhere, and if he’s unable to find one, he may opt to head overseas to continue his playing career.
Well, before he seeks employment in other parts of the world, Darling is first checking in to see if his services can be of use in Rockford. The ultimate goal of any AHL player is to receive the call from their NHL club. While that plan went as favourably as it could have for Darling the first time around, this is a much different scenario for the well-traveled athlete.
Why Now, Rockford?
Entering the IceHogs’ training camp on a tryout basis is a 32-year-old Darling, who is the oldest amongst the four goalies competing for a role with the club. The others hoping to earn playing time in Rockford’s crease are 24-year-old Cale Morris, 25-year-old Tom Aubrun, and 26-year-old Matt Tomkins.
Why would Rockford go this route? It might be that they’ve witnessed what Kevin Lankinen has been able to showcase since being added to the Blackhawks’ taxi squad, and they now assume he’s found a new home in Chicago. Adding goaltending to their roster could ensure depth for the position.
Or, perhaps they are taking the approach that competition brings out the best in those involved. Therefore, reuniting with one of their most celebrated goalies in recent history would only do good for the others looking to steal his spotlight. Rockford certainly wasn’t shy in highlighting Darling’s success alongside their roster announcement.
In 2015, Darling was a member of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Championship appeared in 26 games with the IceHogs that same season, earning a 14-8-2 record, 2.20 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
Whatever their reasoning may be, time will tell if Darling can do enough to find a more permanent fit with the franchise. Even if he does, though, it would seem less than likely that he’ll regain the form that helped him fulfill a necessary role with the Blackhawks last decade. Although there are obvious question marks around Chicago’s goaltending at the moment, Darling isn’t the answer.
Dose of Darling’s Reality
The best-case scenario for Darling is that he makes it on to Rockford’s roster for the 2020-21 campaign and extends his career in North America. Beyond that option, if he doesn’t secure a spot with the IceHogs, it could be a toss-up as to whether he chooses to take his talents elsewhere around the world or just call it a career — an extremely respectable one, at that.
While having a personality like Darling’s only benefits the locker room, his services just might not be what this organization lacks. Regardless of what comes next, he earned his title as a fan favourite with a combination of charm, perseverance, and talent that proved invaluable for the Blackhawks through their 2015 Stanley Cup run. And he deserves to be celebrated for that, always.