The Carolina Hurricanes woke up Tuesday morning one point out of the Eastern Conference basement, and across a season that has seen the team again entrenched in rumors about a potential relocation and continued discussions about their league-worst attendance, one would be led to believe this is a team that’s deserving of its place in the standings. It might even appear that the team has been mismanaged, floundering in the East because the roster they’ve put together simply isn’t good enough to hang with the league’s best.
Of course, that’s not the case. Far from it, in fact. The Hurricanes are one of the most well-coached teams in the league, and Bill Peters is a Jack Adams Award winner in waiting as soon as Carolina can get over the hump and into the post-season. Carolina’s also got an intelligent front office that has made the most of a sometimes bad situation, leveraging the team’s mountain of cap space as an asset and low finishes in the standings to assemble one of the strongest prospect groups in the league.
On ice, the team has all the markings of one that shouldn’t only be in the playoff hunt, but making a serious push for a top-three seed in the division. By just about every advanced statistical measure, the Hurricanes should be one of the most competitive teams in not just the East, but in the entire league. Carolina’s 51.7 Corsi for percentage is fifth in the league, they generate the fifth best scoring chance for percentage at 52.7 percent and in terms of expected goals for, only six teams rank ahead of the Hurricanes’ 52.4 percent mark.
The issue, though, is that Carolina has neglected again to find a suitable netminder to carry the load, and until that happens, Peters will go Adams-less, GM Ron Francis’ work will go unheralded and the franchise will remain outside the playoffs, as they have in each of the past seven seasons.
Francis hasn’t made many mistakes during his tenure in Carolina’s front office, but at this point in the season, it would be safe to say signing Cam Ward to a two-year, $6.6-million deal as a free agent was a regrettable decision. The reasoning behind the deal, or so said Francis in the days leading up to the signing, was that Ward had been sound in goal from December 2015 to the end of the past season. That’s not wrong, per se, but it’s not exactly true either. Ward’s record was 16-9-7 to end the season, but he sported a mere .915 save percentage. That isn’t all that great.
With more than half of this season in the books, we’re again seeing Ward simply isn’t the goaltender he once was and his days of having an even average season appear to be behind him. In the 45 games he’s suited up, his 21-17-6 record isn’t awful — matter of fact, he’s one of only 16 goalies with 20 wins — but how many wins or points has Ward left on the table with his .905 SP and 2.62 goals-against average? And how reliable is he when of the 37 goaltenders to play 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, he ranks 34th with a .911 SP?
This isn’t to pick on Ward and Ward alone, however. The issue goes beyond solely his play between the pipes in Carolina. Ward’s play has been only part of the problem, and his .911 SP at 5-on-5 is actually better than the overall play of the Hurricanes’ netminders, which is a scary thought. Altogether, Carolina’s 5-on-5 SP is the worst in the league at .903. Eddie Lack’s .853 SP is unsightly and Michael Leighton hasn’t fared all that well when called up, posting a .845 SP at 5-on-5. Both Lack and Leighton are also sub-.870 SP goaltenders at all strengths. The only netminders worse than both are Marek Mazanec and Andrew Hammond.
The real heartbreaker in all of this is that the Hurricanes could be so, so much closer to the post-season if it wasn’t for their goaltending faltering at the most inopportune times. A single save here or there really could have been the difference at this point between a Hurricanes team sitting in a playoff spot or one in its current position, outside a wild-card spot looking in. Carolina has lost nine games by a single goal and have seven losses in overtime. In a sense, one save could have been worth at least 16 additional points. Even half of that would be enough to put the Hurricanes in the second wild-card spot.
Say what you will for loyalty — and no one could accuse Francis of not sticking by Ward, who has spent his entire career as a Hurricane, before the two-year deal — but maybe it’s time for Francis to cut ties with Ward and Lack. Ward has left much to be desired for the past few seasons, and Lack, who was acquired in hopes of giving Ward some support in goal, hasn’t been the answer. And it really does seem that as the Hurricanes continue to build a solid core of forwards and rearguards that the next logical step to take would be to find a goaltender who can at least provide the club with average play.
There isn’t a bluechip prospect on the way, and it’s become increasingly clear that Alex Nedeljkovic isn’t ready to make the jump yet. In the AHL this season, he’s sporting a 3.17 goals-against average and .888 SP in 19 games. That will have to improve before the Hurricanes give him the reins. With that in mind, going out and grabbing a netminder in free agency or via trade might be the only way for Carolina to improve in goal.
The off-season will offer a crop of netminders that could vastly improve Hurricanes’ situation, too. Ben Bishop is the top free agent prize, no doubt, but the likes of Brian Elliott, Steve Mason, Chad Johnson, Scott Darling and Mike Condon could potentially be had on short-term, low-cost deals with the chance to be the starter. That’s to say nothing of Marc-Andre Fleury, who will almost certainly be available via trade. Almost every one of those goaltenders has fared better than Carolina’s netminders this season, and the shaky play at 5-on-5 from Elliott and Mason that has them sitting below Ward has been uncharacteristic.
No matter who it is that takes over between the pipes, though, it’s become increasingly apparent that until something is done to repair the Hurricanes’ goaltending situation, the team is destined to fight tooth and nail for a post-season spot that may never come their way.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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