Scott Darling completed his sixth shutout of the season yesterday. He is now tied with Jake Allen for the AHL lead in that department. There is just one thing about that which really leaps out when you think about it. Games Played: Allen, 51. Darling, 25.
In fact, if it weren’t for him lacking games and minutes played, he would be right up there in most major goaltending categories. Darling has a 1.82 goals against average (GAA). The current top three in the AHL: Jake Allen, 2.07 GAA… Petr Mrazek, 2.07 GAA… Tom McCollum, 2.28 GAA. Darling has a 0.938 save percentage (SV%). The current top three in the AHL: Jake Allen, 0.927 SV%… Petr Mrazek, 0.925 SV%… Joni Ortio, 0.924 SV%.
When this season comes to an end – so will Darling’s contract. I have no doubt that he has earned himself an AHL contract next season and, if the right situation presents itself, even possibly a two-way NHL contract. It is that very same thought that should trickle into the Nashville Predators organization when it comes to another netminder whose contract is up this season: Carter Hutton.
Hutton, like current Admiral Joe Pendenza, was a product of UMass-Lowell. In his time there he played for four seasons, played 85 games, had a 2.36 GAA, 0.911 SV%, and 10 shutouts.
He was never drafted by an NHL team so he made the team by team approach: 2009-10, Adirondack Phantoms – AHL (4 games)… 2010-11, Worcester Sharks – AHL (22 games)… 2011-12, Rockford IceHogs – AHL (43 games), Toledo Walleye – ECHL (14 games)… 2012-13, Rockford IceHogs – AHL (51 games), Chicago Blackhawks – NHL (1 game).
It was this season when Hutton truly broke out. He entered Nashville camp, won the back-up job, and stood up to the challenge of being the Predators starter when Pekka Rinne suffered his set back from off-season hip surgery. This season Hutton played in 40 games, won 20 games, has a 2.62 GAA, 0.910 SV%, and one shutout.
In a situation where he could have easily been seen as in over his head – he took the opportunity to perform at the NHL level and shined.
Darling was meant to be our goaltender for the Cincinnati Cyclones this season. When Rinne went down – it wasn’t just Hutton being given the chance to shine because all goalies suddenly took one step up on the system ladder. Magnus Hellberg up – then down. Marek Mazanec up – then down. Darling up – and he pretty much has remained up for the entire season.
Back when all this shuffling around took place, right around November and December, Darling was pushing Hellberg for starts in net. It was the hot hand that was rewarded with more starts. And Darling, playing more AHL games than he ever had before, was earning CCM/AHL awards for Player of the Week and Goalie of the Month. Since returning from a lower-body injury he has shown no ill-signs that the first half of the season was a fluke. He and Mazanec have been pushing each other all the way up until the finish line of the AHL regular season.
There are some real pressing questions for the organization that should come at season’s end: Is re-signing Hutton going to be an option? Will Hutton prove to be too costly as an NHL back up? If Hutton leaves in free agency – do the Predators seek an option outside of their own system? If they stay in system – are Hellberg or Mazanec really prepared or polished enough for NHL duty? And, in a similar mold to Hutton when they came across him last off-season, is Darling worth bringing to camp with a chance at being Rinne’s back up?
Those are all legitimate questions that are going to need to be asked and addressed by the Predators this off-season. How would you answer them?