Way back when in my series of Carolina Hurricanes season preview blogs, I called out ‘great goaltending’ as requirement #1 for the Canes to rebound and surprise this season. You can find that post HERE.
That has not happened – not even close.
Cam Ward did have a short stretch of strong play early in the season, but overall the Hurricanes goaltending has been sub-par. Hardly a day goes by when there is not another graph on Twitter that highlights the Canes struggles in net. In a day and age when good NHL goalies push north of .920 save percentages, Cam Ward sits at .893, and Eddie Lack sits at .863.
The situation begs the question of where the team goes from here:
Could they add another goalie to the mix?
I doubt that will happen for the 2015-16 season. Unless the aim is to add someone for past this season, I do not see Ron Francis spending $ or trade assets to add another goalie. The other option is to pull up 1 of the goalies from Charlotte, but neither of them are exactly lighting the AHL on fire either. Drew MacIntyre sits at .893 and Rasmus Tirronen at .873 for save percentage and neither has been particularly good. An injury could get 1 of them NHL ice time, but otherwise I am not sure either is the answer for 2015-16 or beyond.
Is there hope for the future?
Yes. The best ‘future’ is 2014 draftee Alex Nedeljkovic. This week’s ‘The Pipeline’ report which you can find HERE profiled his trade. He is a bit of an unknown to Hurricanes fans because he was not able to participate in the Canes prospect camp or play in the Traverse City propsect tourney in either of the 2 summers since being drafted because of injuries. He is the closest thing to an heir apparent for the goalie position currently in the Canes system, but he is likely still a couple years away.
What does this mean for Cam Ward?
In addition to his own struggles hurting his chances to return, I think Eddie Lack’s weak play thus far also hurts his chances to return. This might sound strange, but here is why. If Lack were playing well and the team had confidence in him as a starter or at least a 1A part of duo, there is less pressure to get the perfect guy for the other slot. In that scenario, salary and role could be a sticking point, but I think there is at least a chance Ward could be the other half. Remember that the Canes are already committed to Lack for 2 more seasons at a starter/1A-1B type salary. If he does not right the ship and look like at least half of a starter for 2016-17, the pressure ratchets up to spend the other slot wisely. Unless the rest of Ward’s season looks significantly different from what we have seen so far, he is not the answer. If things continue on the current path, next summer could be a real challenging 1 for Ward. And when I say challenging, I am not talking about salary, term, etc. I am talking about finding a spot at all. The list of potential unrestricted free agent goalies this summer is a big 1. Goalies without a decent 2015-16 season could lose the game of musical chairs altogether.
What does it mean for Eddie Lack?
His situation is interesting. He has not been good so far this season. And if given the choice to commit for 2 more years or take a longer look, I would surely take a longer look right now. But Francis already committed to 2 more years this summer, so that ship has sailed.
I think the key thing is to get Lack a run of 2 weeks as a starter regardless of outcome. Here is why:
1) It would be a shame to find out after the playoffs are too far out of reach that Lack was capable of going on a run like he did last season with Vancouver if given the reins and a chance to settle in.
2) GM Ron Francis really needs to figure out what he has in Lack for 2016-17 and 2017-18. How well Lack plays the rest of this season could dictate how much budget Francis spends on the open goalie slot.
3) Related to #1, there is at least a chance that Lack just needs a run of games to settle in and play better. A couple things suggest this could be possible. First, he was not great as a backup last season. His run came after he was handed the starting job and regular starts because Ryan Miller was injured. Second, even when he was playing well and winning, he was still prone to laying some eggs with big goals against totals. This suggests that maybe occasional bad game is not too far off base even for an Eddie Lack that can mostly win.
What is goalie coach David Marcoux’s role in all of this?
It has to be something. Neither goalie is playing well and maybe more significantly neither goalie is playing well relative to what he has done recently. There has been talk that Marcoux is trying to change Lack’s style of play, and that this could be driving his struggles. Is Ward just too far down the wrong side of the hill career-wise such that there is nothing Marcoux can do? Is it possible that Eddie Lack was overrated and that that is why Vancouver made him available for a modest price? The situation is complicated, and there are mitigating factors, but I think the coach has to take at least some of the heat.
If I was coach/GM…
I would give Eddie Lack a run as the starter for 2 weeks to see what happens. I just do not see Ward being good enough to help the Canes push for the playoffs this season. Based on his play so far this season, I would not say Lack looks any better, but I think there are 2 key points on that. First, Lack has not really had a chance to be the starter and see if he can find the kind of rhythm you get from playing 2-3 times per week. It would be a shame to find out in mid-February that Lack was capable if given the chance to find a groove. Second, at some point Ron Francis needs to get a read on what role he thinks Lack is capable of for 2016-17 because it impacts his work to build next year’s team this summer.
How does it end?
As I wrote in another post, I think Cam Ward is untradeable – even at the trade deadline and even if the Canes eat salary. If the Canes eat the maximum half of his salary, he is still at a big $3.4 million. That would be 1 thing if he was playing well and someone needed a starter, but he is not playing well. With most of the contenders pushing against the cap, I think teams will either go with what they have in net or add someone on the cheap and look to spend money at other positions. I think Ward and the Canes part ways after the season and that he struggles to find even a 1B job in a tough market with competition.
The biggest question for me is whether Eddie Lack can hit a higher level and prove capable of being a solid goalie tandem next year. Based on what I have seen so far, i am becoming increasingly concerned about it. Based on that, my wild guess is that Francis is shopping the free agents and trade options again next summer trying to bolster the team’s play in net.