On Friday afternoon, Canes Twitter blew up. The source of the flames was Bill Peters’ comments to media on the play of backup goalie Eddie Lack. The episode starts at about the 5:20 mark of this video on the team web site. The short version is that he called him out and basically chucked him under the bus. The aftermath on Twitter featured a variety of debates ranging from Peters’ professionalism, the treatment and play of Lack, inconsistency not doing the same with Ward at times over the past few years, goalie coach David Marcoux and about anything else even tangentially goalie related for the Hurricanes.
Arturs Irbe was thankfully spared. As far as I can tell, he was the only goalie item from Hurricanes’ history that was not thrown into the fire, and my gut feeling tells me that he was spared only because people ran out of time needing to finish up work and make the transition to the weekend efficiently to be at PNC Arena for Friday’s game.
The story of the Hurricanes’ struggles in net is a long one that dates back before Ron Francis’ time, but rather than pulling Jim Rutherford back into it and raising even more ire, I am going to start with the situation that Francis inherited and what has happened on his watch.
What Ron Francis inherited in the summer of 2014
When Ron Francis was named general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes on April 28, 2014, he actually stepped in at a high point relatively speaking (at least for recent times) in terms of the goalie position. Starter Cam Ward was coming off of an injury-plagued and lackluster 2013-14 campaign. He sported an .898 save percentage and 3.06 goals against average in 30 games during a season that saw him out of the lineup due to injury twice. But surprisingly, the goalie position was a moderate strength in the 2013-14 when Ward was out of the lineup. Newly-acquired Anton Khudobin seized the reins and played well posting a .926 save percentage, a 2.30 goals against average and an impressive 19-14-1 record. (If you project Khudobin’s record over 82 games, it yields 94 points which would have been enough to qualify for the 2014 NHL playoffs.) And below Khudobin, veteran AHLer Justin Peters stepped up into the NHL backup role and also played well especially during a stretch when Khudobin and Ward were both on the shelf due to injury. Peters was not up to Khudobin’s level, but he was close to break even at 7-9-4 and maybe even deserved better with a .919 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average.
With Ward’s injury-marred 2013-14 season and big contract and Peters becoming an unrestricted free agent at just the right time, it would be unfair to say that things were perfect but to say that Francis inherited something without positives or hope is inaccurate coming out of the 2013-14 season.
Ron Francis’ starting point and early work
With Ward locked in for 2 more years at an untradeable $6.3 million salary cap hit and coming off of a down season partly due to injury, at least short-term Francis was stuck with Ward as 1 of his 2 goalies. Francis made the logical move to re-sign Anton Khudobin after his strong 2013-14 season committing to 2 more seasons at $2.25 million per season. In the process Francis made the decision to part ways with Justin Peters who cashed in on his 2013-14 season to the tune of a 2-year contract at $950,000 per year importantly on a 1-way deal that paid him the same if he found his way back to the AHL (which he eventually did).
In the restart with the coaching staff that saw Kirk Muller fired, Bill Peters hired and team icon Rod Brind’Amour as the only coach retained from before Francis’ tenure, another ho-hum move quietly occurred during the summer. Greg Stefan who was the goalie coach at the helm for the 2013-14 season that saw starter Cam Ward struggle at least partly due to injuries but both the #2 and #3 goalies play very well was removed in the house cleaning. He was replaced by David Marcoux whose claim to fame was coaching Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary during his strong run in net that saw him win a Vezina Trophy and be among the best in the NHL during his prime. Marcoux as had spent time with Ward in the AHL with the Lowell Lock Monsters during the 2004-05 lockout season when Calgary and Carolina shared an AHL affiliate.
The Carolina Hurricanes 2014-15 season
Upon taking over as general manager during the summer of 2014. Francis regularly spoke of patience, doing things the right way, building depth in the system and other things that pretty clearly said “rebuilding” to anyone who was open-minded enough to hear it. And that is exactly what transpired in the first season with Ron Francis leading in the executive suite and Bill Peters leading on the bench. The Hurricanes finished with a 30-41-11 record and 27 points out of a playoff spot. With the addition of only 3 inexpensive depth players during the summer before and a significant sell off at the trade deadline, the results were probably what fans should have expected entering the season.
In net, the Hurricanes were somewhere in between ‘meh’ and not good. The 2013-14 version of Anton Khudobin who looked like he was on the brink of emerging as a good NHL starter was nowhere to be found. Khudobin entered the season seemingly with a chance to quickly seize and keep the #1 position, but he never really got going in 2014-15. Despite Khudobin’s 2014-15 season, Ward began the 2014-15 season as the starter. Both goalies received regular turns early in the season and both struggled. Ward allowed 16 goals total in his 4 starts in October before earning a shutout in his first start in November to climb into the season. Khudobin did not fare much better allowing 13 goals in 4 starts in October and posting only 1 outing with 2 or fewer goals allowed (the only such outing for the duo in October). Khudobin had an up and down season with his only really strong month being January and finished with a lackluster .900 save percentage and 2.72 goals against average. Ward ultimately won back his starting job but was really only moderately better. He finished with a .910 save percentage and 2.40 goals against average.
The summer of 2015
Coming off a sub-par season in net and entering Ron Francis’ second summer as general manager, netminding was definitely something to watch during the summer of 2015. And Francis acted fairly swiftly when he pulled off a pair of nearly simultaneous moves. First, he traded Anton Khudobin to Anaheim to add veteran defenseman James Wisniewski. Then he traded a third-round pick in 2015 and a seventh round pick in 2016 to acquire Eddie Lack from Vancouver.
Lack was coming off a strong second half of the 2014-15 season that saw him take over for an injured Ryan Miller, keep the starting job down the stretch and lead the Canucks into the playoffs. In 41 games played in 2014-16 Lack posted a 18-13-4 record with a .921 save percentage and a 2.45 goals against average. More significantly, he seemed capable of going on a run and winning big games in the middle of the playoff chase down the stretch. His play was actually a bit sporadic, but on average he played his best hockey in the second half of the season in February through April. His record during that span was 16-8-2. He struggled in a 4-game sweep in the playoffs, but when the dust settled on the 2014-15 season, the 27-year old Swedish netminder had staked a reasonable claim to being considered for an NHL starting job. With the Canucks still having veteran Ryan Miller under contract and young Jacob Markstrom, Lack was the odd man out.
Coming to the Hurricanes, Lack still had a year remaining on his contract signed when he was a backup for only $1.3 million (salary cap hit of $1.15 million). Not wanting to risk Lack having a strong 2015-16 season and then demanding a much higher salary or possibly just leaving altogether as an unrestricted free agent, Ron Francis made the move to commit to Lack before he had even played a game for the Hurricanes. The 2-year $2.75 million yearly deal that Lack signed represented a middle ground between a typical backup goalie salary of $1-1.5 million and the $3.5-$5.5 million that a top-tier even if relatively unproven #1 might command in the open market. In re-signing Lack early, Francis was committed for 3 years with a goalie he had yet to see play in a Hurricanes uniform.
More of the same for the 2015-16 season for the Carolina Hurricanes goaltending
Among many of the Caniac faithful who were ready to move forward to a new era between the pipes, many had the opinion that Eddie Lack would quickly seize the starting slot from Ward and never look back from there. Lack mostly failed to start coming out of the gate allowing 7 goals in about 90 minutes of ice time in his first 2 starts before being pulled midway through his second game. Exact details of what was happening behind the scenes is unclear, but regular comments on the Hurricanes’ television broadcasts suggested that Lack, working with goalie coach David Marcoux, was trying to make changes to his style of play including using his big frame to challenge more. The attempt to make fairly significant changes in season seemed to throw off Lack’s game. Lack quite often looked like a fish out of water. He was not the best skater and now he was struggling to cover a much greater area of ice often in a hurry when he pushed out and then had to get back. Also, maybe because of the change in where/how he was playing, Lack seemed to struggle with angles and sometimes an understanding of where he was relative to the net. In his first two months with the Hurricanes, Lack posted an .874 save percentage and a 1-5-1 record and looked nothing like a goalie that would garner a 3-year commitment with the second 2 years being at a fairly expensive $2.75 million 1A/1B type of price.
Somewhere along the way, Lack reverted back to the style that with which he was familiar and comfortable. He rebounded temporarily and at least put together winnable efforts sporadically. After 2 more rough starts to start December, Lack posted a .925 save percentage for the rest of December and then a .924 save percentage in January. He was not perfect, but during that run of hockey that was his best in a Hurricanes’ uniform, his record was 8-3-2. In an up and down rest of the 2015-16 season, Lack did have some strong starts, but his save percentage dipped back down to 0.896.
Meanwhile, Cam Ward had a somewhat similar season but with higher highs and lower lows. He too started slowly, played well in the middle of the season and then faded a bit down the stretch. Ward’ s had save percentages of .912 in October and then only .886 in November. He played his best hockey in December through February when the team rose up posting save percentages of .905, .925 and .915 in December, January and February respectively.
When the dust settled on the 2015-16 season, it was possible to get wildly different assessments on the state of the Hurricanes’ goaltending situation depending on how you wanted to look at the data. If you simply looked at the 2015-16 season in total and did not get too bogged down trying to slice, dice and interpret it, the situation was a significant problem. Backup Eddie Lack ranked near the bottom of the league, and starter Cam Ward was below average. But if you wanted to selectively look at portions of the season with a ‘please let it be half full’ bias, the answer could be quite different.
Lack did look better once he reverted back to his 2014-15 style of play. Was that good enough to at least be a serviceable backup? And with a summer off to reset and start fresh, was it possible that he could find an even higher level play? It seemed at least possible, and now starting the 2-year extension for $2.75 million per season that Francis inked before the 2015-16 season even started, Francis was financially committed anyway.
As stated above, Ward’s numbers for 2015-16 in total were below average for the NHL, but not as much as in the couple previous seasons. He seemed to be trending in the right direction, and if you looked only at the good part of his 2015-16 season (that is a statistics trap usually), he was at least average as a starter. Unlike Lack, Ward was a free agent, finally having completed his 6-year $6.3 million contract that started before the 2010-11 season.
Possible missteps by Ron Francis through 2015-16
Managing an NHL roster and contracts is an incredibly complicated process, so simply stating that something did not work is not even remotely close to saying that it was a horrible decision. I actually think that the good GMs make more, not less, mistakes than the lesser GMs. For me the difference is twofold. First, good GMs generally avoid catastrophic mistakes of the long-term horrible contract variety or decisions that sabotage entire seasons. They also have a knack for recognizing things that are not working and constantly working to improve. They seem to better be able to maneuver make upgrades and fix problems without having to wait for the next big cycle at the end of the season.
But longer version of that is an article for another.
Back to the goalie thing, partly due to broader budget limitations and partly due to the 2 years remaining on Cam Ward’s huge contract, Francis inherited a goalie situation that was somewhat inflexible. But I also think it is important to note that the starting point coming out of the 2013-14 season at least was not completely bad. Finally, with an important caveat of limitations and some things beyond his control noted, I do think Francis made a few missteps along the way.
Potential misstep #1: Fixing what was not broken at the goalie coach position
Cam Ward had a rough 2013-14 season probably mostly due to 2 injury setbacks, but the goaltending of 2 theoretically lesser goalies in Anton Khuodobin and Justin Peters was very good. Khudobin was an average or better starter for 2013-14, and once he got going and put together a hot streak Justin Peters played well enough that the Capitals were willing to bet a 2-year, 1-way contract on his viability at least as an NHL backup. I do not know what drove Stefan’s departure. Did Stefan leave on his own? Was it Francis’ decision to bring in someone new? Did Peters make the call building his new coaching staff? Was it a move aimed at trying something different specifically with Cam Ward who was the starter and locked in for 2 more years? Regardless, changing goalie coaches coming out of a decent season for goaltending seems odd in retrospect. My hunch is that Francis was trying to find help to get Ward back to a higher level. Marcoux had experience working with a veteran in his prime in Kiprusoff and had even worked with Ward during the lockout season. So again, simply labeling this as a horrible decision oversimplifies things and ignores arguments for why it could have made sense.
Nevertheless, with the path of the Hurricanes goalies since this move, the numbers at a minimum make it worth considering. Anton Khudobin plummeted from a strong .926 save percentage in 2013-14 to .900 in Marcoux’s first year as goalie coach. Eddie Lack went from leading his team to the playoffs and a .921 save percentage in 2014-15 to a meager .901 in 2015-16 after the transition to Marcoux. Ward’s play under Marcoux is more mixed, and at a basic level his numbers are better though still not great.
Potential misstep #2: Committing to Eddie Lack for 2 years before he played for the Hurricanes
Here is another move that has not worked out where the logic on the front is not horrible. Francis made a relatively small bet (3rd and 7th round draft picks) to obtain Lack. He did not want to risk losing him to free agency or having to pay a bunch more to re-sign him if he had a strong 2014-15 season. So before even seeing him play in Raleigh, he committed for 2 years. It only took about 2 months for that decision to look dicey at best. Had Francis not re-signed Lack early, he would have had another open goalie slot before the 2015-16 and would have had the ability to just eat small losses on his initial trade and move forward. Instead, he was locked in (barring a buy out which I now think will happen this summer) for 2 years.
Part 2 (probably either Sunday night or early next week) will pick up at the summer of 2016 and look at what has transpired since then.