Why Cam Ward was a rare breed among NHL goaltenders

Yes, he hoisted the Stanley Cup and captured the Conn Smythe as a rookie sensation, but Cam Ward also had one of the longest tenures patrolling one crease in NHL history.
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There could have been no exit more fitting for Cam Ward. After 14 campaigns in the NHL, the 35-year-old free agent netminder announced his retirement Wednesday, but not before putting pen to paper on a one-day contract with Carolina and officially hanging up his skates as a member of the Hurricanes.

It’s somewhat fitting, too, that Ward is walking away from the game the summer following a 2018-19 campaign in which a rookie netminder, the St. Louis Blues’ Jordan Binnington, guided his team to the Stanley Cup. That same feat was Ward’s claim to fame.

In the first campaign of the NHL’s post-lockout world, Ward, who had only seen 28 games during the regular season, stole the show for the Hurricanes. He caught fire after replacing Martin Gerber in Game 2 of the opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens and proceeded to win 15 of his next 22 games, all the while posting a .920 save percentage, 2.14 goals-against average and two shutouts, propelling Carolina to the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. In capturing the post-season MVP honor, Ward became one of only four goaltenders in NHL history to do so in his first foray into the post-season. The others? Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall.

Undoubtedly, it will be those two freshman feats that are mentioned most when Ward’s career is considered. That’s in large part because he has no other individual awards to his name. He finished no higher than seventh in Vezina Trophy voting during his career, never once won the William M. Jennings Trophy, only once received Hart Trophy votes and never, not once, graced an end-of-season all-star team. Heck, his only appearance at an All-Star Game was in 2011.

But what shouldn’t be overlooked in reflecting on Ward’s career are two things: his longevity and his role as a fixture in the crease for one franchise.

In the century-plus since the NHL's formation, some 800 goaltenders have stepped between big-league pipes. Of those, however, there are only 51 who have appeared in at least 600 games, and fewer yet, a mere 28, who have hit the 700-game mark. Ward can count himself among both groups. It was this past season with the Chicago Blackhawks, his lone NHL campaign spent outside Carolina, that Ward hit the latter, finishing his career with a tidy 701 games played. More impressive than hitting the higher of the two plateaus, though, is that spending the bulk of those games with the Hurricanes puts him in exclusive company.

Of those 51 goaltenders who have played at least 600 games, it has been somewhat rare for them to reach the mark while suiting up with one NHL club. Roberto Luongo, second all-time among goaltenders in games played, split his time between the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks and a brief stay with the New York Islanders. Patrick Roy, third all-time, split his time between Montreal and the Colorado Avalanche. The same goes for Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph and Grant Fuhr and Jacques Plante, and the list goes on. But Ward, who played the first 668 games of his career with the Hurricanes, is among the dozen or so keepers in league history to have spent so long with one team. Only several netminders in NHL history have had lengthier tenures holding down one franchise’s crease.

In fact, only seven keepers best Ward's 668-game mark with the Hurricanes. Martin Brodeur played 1,259 games with the New Jersey Devils, the most of any keeper with one team, while Phil Esposito’s 873 games with the Blackhawks and Henrik Lundqvist’s 857 with the New York Rangers are the second- and third-most, respectively, though the order will be reversed after the upcoming season. Others on the list include Terry Sawchuk, Billy Smith, Olaf Kolzig and Marc-Andre Fleury, but after that it dries up. There are a few active netminders – Jonathan Quick, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne – who can or will surpass Ward in the coming seasons, but that makes his an achievement no less worth admiring.

To be sure, there’s an argument to be made that Ward reached the plateau based in large part on reputation and not on play, that his Stanley Cup victory, his role as the incumbent starter and the lack of an up-and-comer to unseat Ward anchored him into the job for so long. There’s some truth to that, too.

Ward posted a .906 SP and 2.63 GAA over his final six seasons in Carolina. The Hurricanes tried and failed to push him, replace him or find a fresh face to truly split time. He was considered a weak link at times, the goaltending in Carolina was often maligned during the late stages of his time with the Hurricanes and it’d be fair to say that not once during those final six seasons was he confused with the league’s best netminders. But what shouldn’t be forgotten is that sub-standard play wasn’t always the case. From 2008-09 to 2011-12, Ward twice finished seventh in Vezina voting, he posted a .918 SP and he had one campaign, the 2010-11 season, in which he started all but nine and appeared in all but eight games for the Hurricanes. When he was hot, few were hotter.

Will he be inducted into the Hall of Fame? Not a chance. But Ward was one of the rare franchise-cornerstone goaltenders in NHL history who came up with and spent nearly his entire career with one franchise. And maybe in retirement he'll finally get another individual accolade to add to the Conn Smythe: his No. 30 hung from the rafters in Raleigh. It would be a fitting tribute to a player who was synonymous with the franchise throughout the first decade-plus of an entire era.

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