If you missed part 1 which spanned the summer of 2014 through the end of the 2015-16 season, I recommend reading it to get up to speed for part 2 which follows.
Part 1 leaves off with the Hurricanes missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year at least partially due to goaltending that was below average by league standards statistically. Lack never really got his feet under him in his first season with the Hurricanes, finishing with a .901 save percentage and a 2.81 goals against average. Ward did have a run of better hockey through the middle of the season, but when you look at his 2015-16 season in total, his .909 save percentage was still below the NHL average ranking him 32nd out of 44 goalies who qualified for save percentage.
The summer of 2016
Entering the summer of 2016, Francis had the most flexibility thus far in terms of forging his own path for netminding. He was still committed contractually to 2 more years of Eddie Lack at $2.75 million per year. The contract that Francis had signed him to had not even started yet. But Ward was finally coming off his 6-year deal for $6.3 million per year giving Francis an open goalie slot and at least some budget to work with.
With Lack struggling to get going in a Hurricanes uniform, one might have figured that Francis try to make as significant of an an upgrade as possible in the spot cleared by Ward. On April 20, 2016 barely after the paint was dry on the 2015-16 season, I pegged goaltending as the #1 priority for building the 2016-17 roster. Fans voted for Frederik Andersen first and then whichever of Ben Bishop or Andrei Vasilevskiy could be pried loose second. But on June 16, 2016 before the NHL draft frenzy and well before the opening of the free agent market, Francis made the move to re-sign Ward to a 2-year deal at $3.25 million per season, and in the process bring back the same goalie tandem and coach that was sub-par when looking at the 2015-16 season in total.
Francis did make another goalie move during the summer when he added Michael Leighton who was an AHL veteran who also had a decent amount of NHL experience. Presumably, he was added to solidify things in Charlotte and also serve as a mentor for Alex Nedeljkovic in his rookie season as a professional, but the move did add a #3 who with NHL experience. I hashed over the decision to re-sign Ward from many angles. Part 2 (with a link to part 1) is HERE. I voted more positively on signing Michael Leighton for AHL-level depth in this article. And as alluded to above, Ron Francis also stayed with David Marcoux as his goalie coach but did add Curtis Joseph to the mix as sort of a ‘system goalie coach’ to work with the team’s prospects below the NHL level.
The Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 season thus far
Important to note is that with 20 games yet to play, the final verdict on the 2016-17 season could end significantly different than the current version. Eddie Lack has only started 9 games in his injury-interrupted season, so if he gets half of the starts down the stretch what lays in front of him will be as much as what he has already completed. Even for Ward, who has accumulated a bigger body of work so far, the last 20 games could sway his full season evaluation.
Against that backdrop, the Hurricanes forged forward into the 2016-17 season. The goalie tandem stumbled out of the gate. Starter Cam Ward started with a 1-3-1 mark in October with a .869 save percentage and a goals against average approaching 4.00. And in 4 starts before being sidelined twice with concussions, Eddie Lack’s save percentage was barely above .850 and his goals against average of nearly 4.00.
After an ominous start, Lack was sidelined by injury, but Ward did right the ship and provide solid netminding. In November, Ward would start 12 of 14 games and post a stellar .935 save percentage. Then in December, Ward would start 13 out of 14 games and put up a respectable .917 save percentage. Ward was 12-7-5 for the busy 2-month stretch which projects to a playoff-worth 99-point pace when projected over 82 games.
Along the way, Coach Bill Peters hitched the cart to Ward and just kept riding him. Michael Leighton started twice (and picked up a win in a third game) but from November 8 when Lack was lost to injury through January 21 when Peters went back to Leighton after a long layoff, 32-year old Cam Ward started 29 of 32 games culminating with a 3-game run that saw Ward allow 15 goals in only about 2 1/2 games of ice time after being pulled in the middle game. January started okay with the Hurricanes winning some high-scoring home games but finished with Ward mustering only an .883 save percentage as he faded in the second half of the month. February brought more of the same with Ward posting a couple good outings but also being tagged for 4 or more goals 3 times.
Now we enter the last quarter of the season following a Bill Peters’ tirade that chucked Eddie Lack under the bus hard enough to gain broader North America media interest and make the rounds on hockey Twitter. Lack responded with a solid effort in a 3-1 which pulls him to a respectable 2-2 since returning from injury. One can bet that Lack will receive a ton of ice time down the stretch to assess if/where he fits in the 2017-18 equation. And with some time off, it will be interesting to see if Ward can return to his 2016-17 peak play from November and December.
Possible missteps by Ron Francis and Bill Peters for the 2016-17 season
Hindsight being 20/20, it is fairly easy second guess and pick things apart when they do not work. But the number of things that could be questioned are many.
Potential misstep #3: Going back to Ward
Nevermind that this move was the second most risky thing Francis could do (only behind bringing Eric Staal back) in terms of potentially raising ire with the fan base. At a more tactical level, Francis entered the summer with a backup who was a huge question mark and decided to go with the status quo in the other slot despite the fact that his 2015-16 in total was ‘meh’. I think Francis basically fell into the statistical trap that said ‘If I look only at the stretch of hockey where he is playing well, he is pretty good.’ The summer was not short on other options. Toronto went for the best money could buy adding Frederik Andersen. Florida netted top free agent James Reimer despite already having Roberto Luongo. Calgary added 2 netminders n free agent Chad Johnson and trade acquisition Brian Elliott. All 3 of those teams could make the 2017 playoffs while the Hurricanes, barring a miracle, are destined for the draft lottery again.
Potential misstep #4: Sticking with David Marcoux
By no means is there a guarantee that a different goalie coach could have helped. Sometimes the players just are not very good. But after consecutive seasons that first saw Khudobin go from good to bad and then Lack do the same, making a change seems like something at least worth trying especially given the modest cost.
Potential misstep #5: Not at least trying to ride a red hot Michael Leighton
By no means do I think 35-year old Michael Leighton is a long-term answer for the Hurricanes netminding needs. But at the same time that Cam Ward and Eddie Lack were struggling out of the gate, Michael Leighton was red hot in Charlotte with a sub 1.50 goals against average and a winning vibe to boot. On October 31, I wrote a detailed case for at least giving Leighton a look. A full month later after he had cooled down a bit, he finally received an NHL start on November 27. He started slow but finished incredibly strong winning the first star of the game in a 3-2 Hurricanes win. He was not great in his second start losing on the road to the Rangers on December 3. And with what seemed like a ‘good enough for a backup’ 1-1 mark he was shelved in favor of Ward for nearly 2 months seeing action only once in relief. We will never know how things would have turned out with a different course of action, but is it possible that Leighton could have provided a short burst of strong play to boost the Hurricanes when the team needed it? And even if that did not work out, would a reasonable number of days off in December and January enabled Ward to maintain his higher level of play?
The shorter version
Each and every one of the potential missteps detailed in this 2-part series is debatable and carries potential reasons why it made sense at the time. But the simple truth is that the Carolina Hurricanes have now been below average in terms of the all-important goalie position for 3 consecutive seasons under Ron Francis and Bill Peters with levers pulled by both. The summer of 2017 is now on the tee to be the next chapter in this story and hopefully one that ends better than those that have preceded it.