Can former Blackhawks goalie Darling rebound from a season of injury and tragedy?
Now that the Charlotte Checkers have captured the Calder Cup by triumphing over the Chicago Wolves 4 games to 1, Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell can focus on a pressing issue that will greatly affect the future of both franchises.
And that's what to do with his goalie situation.
The Hurricanes thought they'd found their NHL goaltender of the future when they signed former Blackhawks netminder Scott Darling to a four-year, $16.6 million deal in 2017.
But Darling struggled mightily in his first season in Carolina and eventually lost his starting job to veteran Cam Ward.
Last off-season, Darling refocused and set his sights on reclaiming the No. 1 job, only to tweak a hamstring during the Hurricanes' final preseason game.
It was the beginning of a long, painful -- and sad -- season for Darling, whose father drowned in May in Lakeland, Tennessee. Scott Darling Sr. was 56 years old.
"I talked to him the day after I heard because he was going to come back before to Raleigh," Waddell said last week at the Allstate Arena. "I said, 'You come back when you're able to come back.'"
A Hurricanes public relations official preferred not to ask a still-grieving Darling for an interview.
Darling played just eight games for Carolina this season, going 2-4-2 with a 3.34 goals-against average. One of those wins came when he made 35 saves against the Blackhawks at the United Center on Nov. 8.
"He had some really good games and some really bad games," Waddell said. "There was no in-between."
Carolina placed Darling on waivers on Nov. 29 and assigned him to the Checkers the next day. He did play in one more game for the Hurricanes -- allowing 5 goals in a shootout loss to Washington on Dec. 14 -- but spent the next two months playing in the AHL.
Waddell then granted Darling a personal leave of absence on Feb. 10, and the Lemont native never played in another game the rest of the season.
"He had some issues going on in his life -- just to be honest," Waddell said. "Every place I've been -- I was the GM for 11 years in Atlanta -- personal life comes way before hockey. … He came back from that great -- ready to roll."
Unfortunately, Darling severely sprained his ankle during a practice in early April. He's been rehabbing at home in Raleigh since.
"He's been through a lot," Waddell said. "I feel bad for him because last summer he did everything possible to put himself into shape and be ready for camp. …
"His life is something that he's got some challenges with. For the most part this year, he had it all together. But between all the injuries, losing the starting job in Raleigh -- that's why we made a decision and said, 'Let's refocus. Go home. Get healthy. Stay in touch with our doctors as you need to.'
"That's basically where we're at."
Now, the question is, what does Waddell do next season? The talented Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference Final and used 36-year-old Curtis McElhinney and 27-year-old Petr Mrazek in net. They are both unrestricted free agents, so Waddell could sign either or both of them.
But he could also turn to Alex Nedeljkovic, the AHL Goaltender of the Year who just helped eliminate the Wolves.
Or he could give Darling another chance.
One thing's for sure -- all options are on the table. And that includes buying Darling out of the last two years of his contract.
"People have asked me about it," Waddell said. "You talk about everything during the year, there's no doubt. … We have until the end of June before we have to make that decision.
"Let's see where we're at with the hockey club. I talked about it today with my coach and my owner, and (Darling is still) definitely an option."