Today it was announced that the Carolina Hurricanes had re-signed Cam Ward to a 2-year deal at $3.3 million per year.
There must be literally a dozen angles to this deal
First, at a very basic level, let me say that I do not like the decision. Since right after the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, I pegged the decision on the second goalie as 1 of the 2 biggest decisions that Ron Francis needed to make this season, and I think the team could do better.
Last summer created a difficult situation
I actually think under a scenario whereby Francis had 2 open slots in net, this deal could make sense. I am fine with the 1A/1B combination and think Ward fits in that scenario. The problem is that Eddie Lack is currently locked in for 2 more years and did not play up to a 1A/1B level next season. Is it possible that Lack rebounds in his second season with the Hurricanes? Sure. Is it possible that Ward plays an entire season at a higher level like his good stretch in 2015-16 and makes Lack mostly irrelevant? Sure. But for a position that I think will be the single biggest factor in deciding the fate of the 2016-17, I want better than maybe’s and could be’s.
I am on record as agreeing with the crowd that Francis has been very good as a GM so far, but I think the 1 mistake that he made was the Lack situation. He paid modestly to get Lack (third and fifth round picks) who was only signed through 2015-16. He then doubled the original bet in signing Lack for 2 more years at $2.75 million average per year. The logic was not horrible. The idea was to lock Lack in for 2 more years rather than risk him having a great season and then costing a bunch more as an unrestricted free agent next summer or possibly even leave for a better deal. Hindsight being 20/20, I would have at least liked to see Lack play in a Canes uniform to make sure he arrived with his game still intact. He didn’t. Then still within the honeymoon period in November or December Francis might have had to pay a bit more, but he would also have had a much better idea of what he was paying for based on the change of scenery, goalie coach, team in front of him, different role, etc.
Things could change, but as of right now that deal has not worked. Rather than throwing good money after bad, I would gladly take Lack’s $2.75 million per year back and find another option for next season. (See below) Instead roughly half of the Canes goalie budget is committed to Eddie Lack which I think makes the other half even more important.
In a redo world in which Francis did not already commit to Lack, I think Ward would be a good fit at a reasonable price but still leaving another opening to add a second goalie who might be even better.
But that alternate reality is not the one that Francis needs to make decisions in. I keep coming back to the assertion that the decision on the second goalie spot is arguably the most important that Francis will make this season.
Potentially relying on faulty math
Recent comments by Ron Francis peg Cam Ward as a top 5 goalie in the NHL during the second half of the year. I think there are 2 problems with this:
1) First at a basic statistics level, taking a sample of data and then declaring that a player is pretty good if you look at only the stretch of games where he played well is mathematically broken. The problem with Ward for numerous years now has not been that he cannot rise up and play well as an NHL goalie. The problem has been that he cannot do it often enough.
The last time I played golf awhile back, I had a stretch where I had 3 holes with a par, a par and a bogie. I can assure you that I will NOT even come remotely close to shooting a 6 over par the next time I play. Selecting a goalie based on hoping the player plays all of his games like he played his best last season is fatally flawed and has a high probability to leave you with a goalie whose average is not very good. The problem with this math is compounded by the fact that Ward has had the same problem for multiple years now and compounded even more by the fact that the other goalie was even dicier last season.
2) Also importantly, Francis’ assertion that had Ward as a top 5 during his good stretch last season is itself hard to defend. An article in The Hockey News by Jared Clinton said the same last week. When you assess Ward based on his own and the team’s struggles in net over the past few years, his second half of 2015-16 looks good. The problem is that this is the wrong comparable. When you look at even Ward’s good stretch, he rates out as average-ish. When you look at an full season of his recently, he rates near the bottom of the league regardless of means of assessment or who is doing it.
Are there better options?
Yes. There are. I will not detail them here, as I have written about them multiple times already, but the impending expansion draft should create an interesting market. My math suggests that there could be as many as 7-8 goalies available with no more than 4-5 teams shopping for a #1 or 1A/1B caliber netminder. Sure the initial discussions and negotiations will see other GMs asking for high prices that are fair value for a top-tier goalie. But after the formalities of posturing and trying to get full value, it is a game of musical chairs. The music stops next summer when 2-3 good goalies will likely be lost for nothing in the expansion draft. With everyone being fully aware of that schedule, at some point fairly soon it becomes a buyer’s market for some pretty good goalies.
But do they all cost too much?
Per my comments above, I come back to 2 things.
First and foremost, I continue to think that this is single most important decision that Ron Francis will make for the 2016-17 season. If I am Francis and I need to cut costs or scrimp on budget, this is NOT where I do it. Rough math says that the Canes have $5-6 million (after re-signing Rask and Murphy) to spend on this goalie slot and 2 more forwards to reach the salary cap minimum. If an internal budget tells me that I can only spend this $5-6 million to get to the cap minimum, I would still budget $4-5 million of it and some of the arsenal of draft picks and other futures to getting the best goalie that I can get and would make due with shopping the bargain bin for the last 2 forwards.
Second, per my comments on the market dynamics with the impending expansion draft, I do not buy the argument that the market is just too expensive. The middle of June is way too early to assess that. Sometime GMs with goalies pitch fair market values and get no takers and then after a couple of shoppers (ideally Calgary and Toronto) move to fill their slots is the time to assess the market cost. At this point, depending on what Dallas and a couple other teams do, the market could see the Canes and somewhere between 0 and 3 other shoppers making their own market with multiple options still available and getting closer to the end of the game of musical chairs.
What about the expansion draft?
Seeking answers, someone suggested that maybe the 2-year deal was intended to prepare for the expansion draft. This makes no sense to me. Things could change, but as of right now I would be willing to get out of Eddie Lack’s contract, send Lack to Las Vegas early and spend that $2.75 million exploring other options. I see no angle that pushes the Hurricanes to settle for less simply because of the risk of losing the addition next summer. That situation would sort itself out during the season. If the addition, plays well and becomes the #1 with Lack still not finding a higher gear, then you expose Lack (and maybe even hope he gets selected at that point after 2 unsuccessful years and a medium-priced contract). If instead Lack rebounds and is lights out in 2016-17, then you could expose the new goalie and might not even lose him because at that point he would be an expensive option coming off a lackluster season.
Is it possible that this is only the beginning?
Getting back to where I started, I actually like Ward as part of a 2-goalie tandem that upgrades the other slot. With their prices being similar, if I could choose only 1 of Lack and Ward, it would actually be Ward.
So is it possible that Eddie Lack ironically becomes the Anton Khudobin of the summer of 2016. If Francis goes to add a goalie via trade, most of those trade partners will need to add a goalie to back fill the hole left. Could Francis package Lack with a decent collection of futures and add someone like Andersen or Fleury later.
This actually makes some sense in the Cam Ward situation too. Ward obviously wants to be a starter and sees a great chance to be exactly that in a Ward/Lack tandem. That favorable situation hopefully had some impact on the negotiations. The fact that Francis now has 2 goalies under contract also decreases his desperation and need to do anything when he enters into talks leading up to the draft.
Is it possible that this deal becomes a 2-part deal (sort of like Khudobin and Lack last summer) in which the utter brilliance is only recognized after the second deal
That is my hope because I am not thrilled with starting the 2016-17 season with the same goalie duo as last season based on the results from it.
Despite my preference to move forward to the next era in Canes hockey including another netminder and the analytical part of this opinion, I think it is important to note the people side of it too. In his 10 years in a Hurricanes uniform, Cam Ward has been phenomenal as a person, a team mate and a member of the Canes hockey community. The fact that Ron Francis still wants him in the locker room as the team transitions significantly says a lot about his character and who he is as a person. In the realm of leadership and character, I have zero questions about Cam Ward.
I have a couple more angles of rambling on this that are not going to fit into my lunch break, but will hopefully get back to it tonight.