We have reached the point in the season where for teams in the middle of the pack for the playoff chase every game is important. With the Hurricanes coming off a loss on Tuesday and looking at a tough back-to-back, the spotlight is amplified even a bit more.
While I do not see Francis acting aggressively to win any pricey bidding wars at the trade deadline even if the Hurricanes are in the playoff hunt, I do think 2 types of moves are possible. The first is a move aimed not just at 2016-17 but also the long-term (this is where a Duchene deal fits). The second would be to spend a small amount to improve the chances for 2016-17. If nothing else emerges and looks solid soon, one possibility would be to add a backup goalie.
The goalie situation continues to do some combination of intriguing, worrying and perplexing me.
On Thursday, I posted ’round 2′ of goalie polls. See results and vote if you have not already HERE.
Those were on top of a set of goalie polls only a week earlier.
Of late, the plan in net has been to trot Ward out each and every night. Because that plan is unsustainable in general and for certain in March when things get busy, I continue to watch the play of Cam Ward, any comments/clues from Peters or Francis on goaltending and anything else goalie-related very closely.
I think this weekend has the potential to spur both Francis’ direction and urgency for the next month.
Cam Ward had a really rough outing in Tuesday’s loss and was gone by the midway point after letting in multiple soft goals. I detailed each goal including Ward’s role in them in my game recap. I am not inclined to just call Ward’s play Tuesday a 1-game anomaly. I also wrote in detail about the Hurricanes’ goaltending situation a week ago prior to the Columbus game when the buzz was just beginning.
Ward has had some strong starts in January with the high point being a strong efforts in both halves of a road back-to-back with travel against St. Louis and Chicago. But even while winning at home last week, he was suspect at times with 2 puck-handling miscues that became goals against and also a few other miscues.
With Tuesday’s loss being a low point for Ward in recent times, I think Friday is an important game for him and potentially a fork in the road for assessing the situation in general. If Ward plays well and the Hurricanes win, Tuesday looks like a random bad game and an anomaly. If Ward struggles again on Friday, it makes 2 in a row and increases the possibility that Ward has hit a wall physically and/or mentally with the heavy work load such that the situation needs to be rectified.
You can bet that Cam Ward will be high on the list of ‘what I’m watching’ for Friday’s game against the Penguins.
Michael Leighton on Saturday?
Coach Bill Peters’ has not made a firm commitment, but all indications are that Michael Leighton will make a start on Saturday night in Columbus ending Ward’s run of consecutive starts at 21. Leighton was returned to Charlotte this week for game action on Tuesday and Wednesday presumably as a tune up and to shake any rest off in preparation for an NHL start on Saturday.
It would be Leighton’s third start at the NHL level this season. Leighton started slow but was ultimately stellar in a 3-2 home win over Tampa Bay on November 27. Happy with the first outing, Bill Peters began to deploy him like a regular backup and came back to him a week later to split a back-to-back set between the 2 goalies. The Hurricanes lost on the road to the Rangers 4-2 and Leighton was ‘meh’ at best. And that was the end of him. Now approaching 2 months later, he has not had another chance at the NHL level despite a decent 1-1 mark in starts (he actually won the wild Canucks game in relief).
Long, long ago, Leighton was a red hot goalie with a roughly 1.00 goals against average at the AHL level and with the potential to be ridden while he was hot. Then he was a decent backup in a limited sample size with a 1-1 mark and 1 really good outing to boot. Now 48 days since his last NHL start, it is anyone’s guess what the Saturday version of Michael Leighton will be.
Various possible outcomes
Assuming Ward plays on Friday and Leighton on Saturday, there are a wide array of possible outcomes.
If Ward plays really well on Friday and Leighton plays really well on Saturday and the Hurricanes collect 3 or 4 points, all will be right in the Hurricanes’ world, and general manager Ron Francis can lean back in his chair and watch with a little less anxiety. Leighton should then be deemed good enough to take the next backup start (maybe not until a February 3/4 back-to-back), and any concerns that Ward might be wearing down would at least temporarily be alleviated.
If Ward plays well on Friday but Leighton does not on Saturday, that could be okay short-term. The team’s schedule is 1-goalie friendly short-term, and Eddie Lack is practicing. Such an outcome is not a disaster, and maybe just has Francis waiting for Lack to take the next try in the backup slot.
If Ward plays poorly, and Leighton plays poorly, it could force Francis’ to expedite his late-February work and possibly even adjust his priorities. A poor outing from Ward at a minimum increases the possibility that Ward needs more days off. And a bad outing from Leighton suggests that he is not a great option to spell Ward. At a minimum, that sends Francis checking the time table for a Lack return and possibly even starting to shop for more goalie help.
As long as Ward plays well, Francis has time. If the Hurricanes are going to contend for a playoff spot in March, Francis does eventually need to find a #2 goalie. Leighton is the currently available option, and it seems possible that Lack presents an alternative fairly soon (probably after a rehab stint in Charlotte). And only after neither of those works out (again as long as Ward is playing well) does Francis need to explore other options.
If Ward and Leighton flop, it at least becomes feasible that Francis looks outside the organization to trade for help. Part of this depends on Eddie Lack’s expected time table, but it is important to note that Lack did not exactly set the world on fire earlier this year, and when he next plays in an NHL game, it will be approaching 3 months since his last NHL start on November 6.
Again, the light schedule helps to some degree (especially if Ward rebounds), but the play of both goalies this weekend could start Francis at least exploring options on the trade market, and it could also have him slow down a little bit on other discussions saving trade assets in case necessary to shore up the goalie position.
If nothing else, we have a hockey team in the playoff chase and the drama and tension that comes with it. That is very much a good thing.