Before rookie goaltender Matt Murray was backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup final, there was Cam Ward, the Carolina Hurricanes netminder who stole the starting role from Martin Gerber and has been Carolina’s go-to guy ever since.
But since that Stanley Cup victory, a combination of injury trouble and mediocre play has made Ward’s tenure in Carolina somewhat tumultuous. There were good seasons — his 2010-11 campaign with a .923 save percentage and 37 wins stands out — but there were also some poor ones, like the 2013-14 campaign where Ward went posted a sub-.900 SP and bloated 3.06 GAA in 28 starts.
Now comes the hard part for both Ward and the Hurricanes, though. After 11 seasons, Ward is set to become an unrestricted free agent after finishing up the final season of a six-year, $37.8-million deal. It has seemed at times the Hurricanes would choose to let Ward walk, but after Ward impressed GM Ron Francis in the second-half of the 2015-16 season, Carolina seems to be leaning towards keeping the 31-year-old netminder.
“We’ll make a decision fairly soon (with regard to signing Ward),” Francis said, via the News & Observer, adding he and his staff have been assessing who will be available for goaltending help in the free agent market. And it doesn’t sounds like looking elsewhere sounds as good as some may have believed.
“As I sit here today, do I want to want to give up a first-round pick for a goaltender that may have a year or two left on his deal, and then we lose him or get an older guy?” Francis said. “Not really the plan that I’m looking for. Cam takes a lot of criticism, but from December to the end of the year (he) was one of the top five goaltenders in the league in goals against and save percentage. I think there’s some merit to revisiting that as we move forward.”
One reason keeping Ward in Carolina makes some sense is that the Hurricanes don’t have a goaltender waiting in the wings to take over backup duty next season. Daniel Altshuller could use more seasoning, Alex Nedeljkovic hasn’t yet made his AHL debut and any draftees won’t be making an immediate jump to the NHL. On top of that, Francis probably wants to prepare for a potential expansion draft. It’d be much easier to roll with Ward and risk losing him come 2017 than it would, say, Eddie Lack or a recent signee. But that’s an extremely safe way to play things considering the Calgary Flames were the only team with a worse 5-on-5 SP than the Hurricanes.
The problem is that Francis’ claims about Ward’s play aren’t quite accurate, and it could mean Carolina is overvaluing Ward as free agency approaches. There were 42 goaltenders who played at least 20 games from the start of December onward, and of those netminders Ward 14th best GAA (2.34) and tied for 20th in wins. Those two stats look great, but those are as much team-based as they are goaltender-centric. So, what about Ward’s SP?
Well, therein lies the issue. Ward posted the 30th-best SP (.915) of the 42 20-plus game goaltenders, and his 5-on-5 numbers weren’t sparkling. Ward was one of 38 goaltenders to play 1,000-plus minutes at five-a-side from Dec. 1 to the end of the campaign, and his .920 5-on-5 SP ranked 29th.
Above all, the biggest issue with Ward will be cost. If Ward was willing to come back at a cut rate — think a salary matching Lack’s $2.75 million or only slightly more — to help with the changing of the guard in Carolina, that would be a good deal for the Hurricanes. But if Ward wants to come back on a deal worth anything near his $6.3 million, those terms should be something Carolina takes a long, hard look at before signing.
From the way things sound, though, the Hurricanes and Ward may have found somewhat of a middle ground. The way Francis is talking — defending Ward, praising his second-half play and talking about a resolution — it sure sounds like something is up. And that something could very well be Ward staying put in Carolina.