I honestly did not do it intentionally, but perhaps the hockey gods had a hand in dropping the last two 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes report cards right into the front end of a holiday weekend where many will miss them.
For anyone catching up, a menu of previous player (and also coaching and GM) report cards can be found at the bottom of the article.
Cam Ward’s starting point for the 2016-17 season
The 2015-16 season saw the expiration Cam Ward’s 6-year, $37.8 million contract and the potential that the team would have a different starting netminder for the first time in more than a decade. But based on a decent burst of play by Ward in the winter when the team played well and won and possibly because of not liking the other options, Ron Francis chose to bring Ward back on a new two-year contract. In so doing, Francis made the decision to return to a 2015-16 goalie tandem and goalie coach that was among the worst in the NHL by most statistical measures.
Ward’s 2015-16 season was actually mixed. Ward started slow, yielding 13 goals on 98 shots for an .867 save percentage as the Hurricanes limped out of the gate with a 1-3 start. But he rebounded fairly quickly yielding on 6 goals on 99 shots through the rest of October for a .939 save percentage. And that up and down trend would continue throughout the 2015-16 season for Ward. When the team finally found its rhythm in December, Ward looked at least good enough in front of a decent hockey team. The Hurricanes won and Ward improved posting .905, .925, .914, .914 and .925 monthly save percentages for December through April. More significant than the raw numbers is the fact that Ward was consistent, generally decent if not better and good enough to give his team a chance to win in the second half of the season which it often did. His improved play in the second half of the 2015-16 was a step up and gave Francis reason to consider bringing him back.
But when one looked at the 2015-16 season in total, Ward’s .909 save percentage and broader statistics were sub-par for an NHL starter.
Cam Ward’s 2016-17 season with the Carolina Hurricanes
With the expiration of Ward’s 6-year contract and the opening it created at the goalie position, Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis had the chance to go a different direction, but instead re-signed Ward early in the offseason before the draft and free agent frenzy in July.
Ward entered training camp in a familiar place as the expected starter and with the organization hoping that he could take the high point of his 2015-16 season that stretched through the winter and carry momentum and a full season of it into the 2016-17 season. The start was all too familiar. Ward posted an .869 save percentage in October, allowing 18 goals on 137 shots, and limped to a 1-3-1 start in his first five starts in October.
True to form, Ward then rebounded. He had his best month in years in November. In 12 starts during the month, Ward allowed more than 2 goals only twice, posted a scintillating .935 save percentage and was the team’s best player on many nights while it tried to muster enough scoring to convert Ward’s netminding into wins. December was a bit choppier, but in total Ward was still playing at least ‘good enough’ hockey on most nights and giving his team a chance to win.
Along the way, Eddie Lack was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion and Peters struggled to find the right combination of guts, courage and simple recognition of necessity to get veteran AHL/NHL goalie Michael Leighton into the mix as the backup. Lack made his last start for awhile on November 6. Leighton took turns on November 26 and December 3. Otherwise, it was a long run of starts including four sets of back-to-backs in December. At the point when Leighton made a start on January 21, Ward had started 29 out of 32 games between Lack’s start on November 6 and Leighton’s on January 21.
Whether it was the pace that prorated to 74 starts in 82 games at age 32 years of age or simply the fact that Ward was bound to revert back to his recent average, his game faded in the second half of the season. He had a run of 17 goals against in 4 games in mid-January, and his save percentage again dipped below .900 in January and February. He settled down a bit but never really reached his high level of play from the second third of the season. He won in March when the team surged but with mediocre play, and he trailed off in April like much of the team once eliminated from the playoffs.
When I net out the twists and turns of another up and down season, the end result was fairly similar to the year before. Ward had a fairly significant stretch of good if not better play. But a slow start and equally long stretch of ‘meh at best’ play make the average sub-par. His 26-22-12 record is an okay but not playoff-worth 87-point pace, and his top line and more detailed statistics rate lower. He finished with a .909 save percentage and 2.69 goals against average that put him well below average for NHL starters.
In addition to measuring Ward’s level of play is to acknowledge his valuable role as a veteran in the locker room. With a team that is getting younger by the year and started the season without long time captain Eric Staal for the first time in a long time, Ward filled a veteran leadership role despite the fact that goalies do captain letters.
Grading Cam Ward
Graded as: Starting goalie.
Grade: C+. I think it is fair and actually not just making excuses to question what Ward’s full 2016-17 season might have looked like had he been given a bit more rest during the front part of the winter, but grading his season for what it was and in total, I give him a C+. He gets a C because for just not being good enough in total relative to other NHL starters and a plus because he did have a reasonably extended run where he was at least good enough for his role.
Like in 2015-16, Ward managed a stretch where he was good (key point is good, not great or elite), but when one offsets that with another slow start and a ‘meh’ at best second half of the season, it just was not good enough for his role. The Hurricanes again finished near the bottom of the NHL in pretty much all goaltending metrics and Ward definitely had a role in that.
Looking forward to 2017-18
The goalie situation for the Carolina Hurricanes for 2017-18 is still a bit TBD with three goalies currently in tow. My best bet is that Ward will in fact stay and that Eddie Lack will either be traded or bought out, but there are definitely scenarios that see Ward depart.
The situation is an interesting one for Cam Ward entering the 2017-18 season. For the first time since his rookie year in 2005-06, he will enter the season expected to be the backup. There is a transition to be made in terms of role, mindset, preparation and very likely volume of work. If things go as planned, Ward will go from being in the lineup multiple times week in and week out to seeing the ice once a week or maybe even less sometimes.
Ward will need to be able to find a decent level of play without regular game work, and he may need to be capable of stepping in for a more normal starter-like stretch if Darling is injured or hits a rut.
What say you Canes fans?
Do you think Cam Ward’s 2016-17 season could have ended differently had he been spelled in the middle of the busy stretch? Or was the 2016-17 season just always destined to end about like the previous few in terms of Hurricanes’ goaltending?
If he stays as I expect, do you think Ward will be able to smoothly transition into a backup role, or do you fear that the significant differences in terms of volume of play, preparation, etc. could be difficult for Ward as a career starter?
We covered this in the Coffee Shop recently, but how do you think the Hurricanes current three-goalie situation sorts out before the start of the 2017-18 season?
Previous report card articles