Please also check out the companion ‘coffee shop’ post with polls and questions on the Hurricanes goalie situation. Comments are welcome anywhere on the site, but slight preference is to use the other post for Canes goalie conversation.
Per voting by everyone on our newsletter mailing list, I will wade bravely into the delicate situation of the Hurricanes goaltending. If you want to vote next time, please consider signing up for our mailing list to receive CandC mail 2-4 times per month.
First, I suggest that everyone who has not yet read the following articles to do a quick read for interesting context.
Then today’s Sunday Canes Chronicle featuring great Canes reading from other sites has a good read from Ben Pope at Today’s Slaphot in which he detailed the stats for the 2016-17 season (through 6 games).
With that, let me try to come at the Hurricanes goaltending situation from a couple different angles without writing a novel.
2015-16 and perhaps its curse on 2016-17
At the top level, the Carolina Hurricanes’ goaltending was not good enough in 2015-16. Newly-acquired Eddie Lack did get better as the season wore on, but even the better version of him in the second half of the season never really found a lasting groove, and he finished near the bottom of the NHL statistically. Cam Ward started slowly but somewhere in between adequate and good during the Hurricanes’ winning run from December through February. We are much too early to write a final story, but it is possible that that stretch of hockey cursed the 2016-17 season. When you net it out, the Hurricanes received at least good enough goaltending for about 35 games and not good enough for the rest of the season. That simply is not enough.
The summer of 2016
The end of the 2015-16 season saw Cam Ward’s 6-year, $37.8 million contract finally come of the books. Lack still had 2 years remaining on his contract, but it presented the opportunity for Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis to fill 1 of his 2 goalie slots. In my second post after a short break at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season and my first post looking forward to the 2016-17 season on April 20, I ranked Ron Francis’ decision on the open goaltending slot as arguably the most important decision he would make this summer. Possibly due to the market conditions, Francis decided to bring back Cam Ward on a 2-year deal. Arguably, the most prominent goalie to change teams this summer was Frederik Andersen who was pricey in 2 ways. First, he cost a first and a second round draft pick in trade. Second, he required a long-term $5 million per year new contract. Brian Elliott was next in the pecking order costing the Flames an early second round draft pick and a conditional third-rounder. As of yet, none of the big names impacted by expansion draft situations next summer (Marc-Andre Fleury and Ben Bishop being the most prominent) moved this summer.
There is a case to be made for Francis going with simple, low risk and inexpensive in re-signing Ward versus committing a bunch of assets to add someone else. Put me firmly in the camp that would have been and still would be willing to overspend a bit to at least try to upgrade the goalie slot and reduce the probability that it sabotaged a playoff-capable 2016-17 team if the youth continued to develop.
2016-17 so far
First, it is important to note that 8 games is still a fairly small sample size. But it is also important to note that by the time you reach a statistically valid sample size, it could be too late for this season. And through 8 games now, the Carolina Hurricanes have not been good enough. Out of 8 outings, I would rate only Eddie Lack’s strong effort in game 2 in a 4-3 overtime loss, Lacks’ 4-2 win over Calgary and Cam Ward’s stellar effort on Friday as good or better. While I fully acknowledge that shoddy defense has played a role, the save percentage and goals against average near the bottom of the league simply are not good enough. The Hurricanes have now scored 3 or more goals in 6 of 8 games this season and have a meager 2-4-2 record to show for it. The defense has been part of that, but the goalies have too.
So what are the possible paths forward?
I see 3 paths forward from here:
1) Ron Francis can stick to his guns
Given the combination of options and their costs in June, Ron Francis made the decision to stick with Cam Ward and Eddie Lack for his goaltending tandem.
Is it possible that the duo is just off to a slow start but that Ward’s strong outing on Friday is a sign that things are about to turn? Or is the greater risk that waiting could dig too big of a hole to recover later even with a change? That is the difficult question if Ron Francis is focused on righting the ship for the 2016-17 season.
Or is it possible that Francis is just unwilling to pay an exorbitant cost and is waiting out the market? I hate the idea of being too frugal in this situation, but there is some limit to what Francis should consider paying to upgrade.
2) Francis can make a decision based on 8 games and act accordingly
As noted in #1, there is a tricky line between patience and letting things go too far, but if I had to assess the Hurricanes goalie situation looking only at the 8 games thus far, I would say it is not good enough. If Francis agrees, there are goalies, good ones even, who are theoretically available. Ben Bishop in and Marc-Andre Fleury are at the top of the list. With the Canes netminders struggling, Francis is not exactly negotiating from a position of strength, but the fact that the expansion draft is gradually creeping closer offers some relief.
Either of these players would be expensive in 2 regards. First, it will cost assets to acquire 1 via trade. Second, either goalie will expensive in terms of salary. Fleury is scheduled to make $5.75 million per year for this season and the next 2. Bishop will need to be re-signed for similar or possibly even a bit more.
3) Michael Leighton could be an interesting wild card
As a veteran AHLer with some NHL experience, Michael Leighton could become an interesting option that requires virtually nothing for cost or risk (except the results of the games he plays in). Right now, I would be tracking Leighton’s play in the AHL very closely. Thus far, Leighton is off to a strong start statistically with a 3-0 record, 1.91 Goals Against Average and an impressive .929 Save Percentage including a 30-save shutout on Saturday. I included a Leighton sighting in Raleigh among my possible surprises for 2016-17. I would not vault Leighton straight from the AHL to the NHL starter role by any means, but if Lack continues to struggle, I would consider giving him half of a back-to-back when a second goalie must play anyway. Then it is as simple as letting results dictate what happens next.
What would I do if I was Ron Francis/Bill Peters?
If Michael Leighton stays hot, I would consider spending a single start on him to see if just maybe he can catch lightning in a bottle even if short-term. The Checkers play Wednesday and Thursday this week, and then the Hurricanes have a back-to-back set on Saturday and Sunday. How aggressive will Ron Francis be? If Leighton has another strong start on Wednesday or Thursday, is it possible that Francis takes a small risk and spends a single start on a possible Leighton wild card? That seems like the aggressive schedule but who knows.
I would also continue to work the phones for potential trade options. To be honest, I am not thrilled with the high cost and long-term commitment for Fleury or Bishop though they are the 2 players most likely to be both available and helpful.
It might sound aggressive, but if Leighton puts up a strong outing in the middle of the week, I would consider giving him a start next weekend. For the goalie position, hot can easily trump good at least for a short period of time. If his audition goes well, I would give him a bigger share of ice time and see where it goes. To be clear, it is not so much that I am certain that journeyman veteran Michael Leighton is a surefire upgrade. Rather, it is because the cost of at least trying this is virtually zero. The initial investment is very simply the goaltending for a single game. Francis can then bet more or not based on seeing results from that first trial.
If at least 1 of Ward, Lack or Leighton is not playing consistently decent hockey by the middle of November, I would more aggressively shop for a deal that must include Eddie Lack going the other way to help balance out the salary costs a bit.