So if you missed it, and I can only assume since you’re reading this, you did not, Cam Ward’s first game was pretty bad. His second one wasn’t a whole lot better either. Probably both the most controversial AND the most accomplished player on the Hurricanes roster, Ward has rightfully been a lightning rod of criticism for his play in the last few years. As an admitted Cam Ward apologist over the years, I finally stopped making excuses for him last year. One can only take so many spectacular saves followed by ridiculously soft goals. So here I am, a late addition to a nearly universal Caniac Nation movement that badly wants to move on from the greatest goaltender in franchise history. Because that’s exactly what it was. History. All that said, I hear ‘Cam stinks, get rid of him’ a lot from fellow fans, and while I definitely do not think this is an invalid sentiment, I wonder if you realize how truly strange Cam Ward’s fall from grace really is. In ways, it is near unprecedented. From 2006-early 2012, Ward was one of the rising goaltending stars of the National Hockey League. Two-time All Star, two-time playoff brick wall, Conn Smythe Trophy winner. And all of this was accomplished before his 27th birthday. This article goes in-depth to discuss and analyze the very curious fall of Cam Ward.
The Beginning: A Star is Born (2005-08)
His first three regular seasons, Cam was actually pretty weak. The Conn Smythe run of course does much to obscure his early struggles, but the fact of the matter is, Cam was a well-below average goaltender slightly masked by a very good Hurricanes team in front of him.
His three-year regular season averages during this span
52 GP, 27 Wins, .897 Sv %, -12.6 Goals Saved Above League Average (GSAA)
If not for that magical finish to his rookie season, bringing us all the smiles and joy, we might have wondered if Ward would ever pan out as a goaltender. Luckily for all of his good folks here, Cam played out of his mind for a month long stretch and we have memories that will last a lifetime. And still Cam Ward as our goalie, ten years later.
The Middle: The Star Becomes the All-Star….Twice (2008-12)
Wait…there was a time when Cam Ward was an All-Star goalie? Why yes, as hard as it is to believe Cam Ward was a legitimate Top 10 NHL goalie for a few years. The 2008-09 Hurricanes team made the Eastern Conference Finals from the 8 seed, largely on the back of his (and Jussi Jokinen’s) heroics.
The statistics back up his All-Star status as well, just look at these four season averages:
64 GP, 31 Wins, .918 Sv %, +11.54 GSAA
Due to this performance, it was here that Cam signed what seemed to be a well-earned 6 year $37.8M contract to remain our franchise goaltender. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes roster in front of him got progressively worse as low draft picks, and Jim Rutherford’s apparent hatred of Erik Cole, started the current playoff drought that plagues Raleigh to this day. As a result, Cam Ward faced more shots during this span than any other NHL goalie. Still, as of the Jordan Staal trade, the Hurricanes still had a #1 workhorse in the net and a relatively reasonable playoff shot. Until they didn’t.
The End?: Injuries, Head Games, and a Whole Lot of Frustration (2013-16)
March 3, 2013 can be noted for all of Hurricanes history as the end of All-Star Cam. Halfway through a game against the Panthers, Ward left the game with a lower body injury and did not return for the rest of the season. At the time of his injury the Canes had won 4 of their last five with Cam in net, and were in playoff position in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. The Hurricanes would never recover from his injury that season, and Cam Ward would never again regain All-Star form.
The following four season averages show just how far he fell statistically
38 GP, 16 W, .907 Sv %, -7.08 GSAA
In the recent era which has seen league-wide goaltending get better and better, Cam Ward has gotten worse. While it is important to note that Cam hasn’t been a terrible goalie by NHL standards during this time, he has been well below average and nowhere close to the All-Star netminder Hurricanes fans have been accustomed to seeing. It was long expected that when Ward’s contract was up, following the 2015-16 season, the Hurricanes organization would thank him for his services and move on. Obviously that didn’t happen
The Present: Why is Cam Ward Still a Hurricane?
In the new Ron Francis era that’s seeing an increase of talent nearly across the board, it was a shock that Cam was handed a 2 year, $6.6M deal which, while cutting Ward’s cap hit in half, struck many as a stagnant signing where the rest of the team was moving forward. His early play has done nothing to quiet the criticism either, suffering two losses, with a GAA of .852. The main driver of Cam Ward-itis, the soft goal, is still maddening fans on a nightly basis. While it’s also interesting to note that goalie stats are down across the board this year, Ward’s is not the type of play that is going to get the Hurricanes back to the playoffs, plain and simple. So why is the man still playing in Raleigh?
First and foremost, any justified Cam Ward hater needs to remember this. During the 2016 offseason there were ZERO goalies on the free-agent market that could be argued were clearly better than Ward. None. The best alternative option, James Riemer, has a history of wildly inconsistent play, and the second, Chad Johnson, was a 30 year old coming off the first season where he started more than 30 games. The third, Anton Khudobin, already flamed out as a Hurricane. None of the three are starting NHL goaltenders this year.
While only Ron Francis and his team know who was truly available on the goalie trade market, the two starter-caliber goalies that were traded this offseason (Toronto’s Frederik Andersen and Calgary’s Brian Elliott) are both playing slightly worse than Cam right now, and their prices weren’t cheap (Toronto gave Anaheim a 2016 1st rounder and a 2017 2nd round pick, while Calgary gave St. Louis a 2016 2nd and a 2018 3rd). Given Ron Francis’ exemplary draft record so far, these picks are very valuable commodities that can’t be given up lightly. I don’t think anybody would argue that the Hurricanes wouldn’t be better off short-term with Ben Bishop or even maybe Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, but is it worth giving up multiple high-round draft picks and young talent? This writer doesn’t think so, and clearly Ron Francis didn’t either, because Cam’s still here, for better or worse.
Why None of This Makes Sense
If you look at the best goalies today like Price, Quick, Crawford, Holtby and Bishop, all of them arguably had their breakout seasons at age 26 or later. Current rising stars Martin Jones and Cam Talbot didn’t get their first cracks until 26 either (FYI Lundqvist, Luongo and Rask all destroy this trend, but they are freaks of nature in terms of goalie consistency). Yet, by that age of 26, Cam Ward had already reached his decline. It’s almost like Ward aged backwards in goalie years. Only two goalies in the last 20 years have even remotely close declines statistically. Far worse than Cam’s decline was that of former Islanders top pick Rick DiPietro, who got destroyed by injuries and confidence issues until he was cut by the Charlotte Checkers. The other was former Vezina runner-up Roman Turek, who was out of the league within four years after that lone stellar season with the Blues. Neither goalie played in the league half as long, nor was as good for as long as Cam Ward. This writer understands that Cam Ward is, at this point, a below-average mediocre goalie and the Hurricanes will be better off when he leaves. What this writer doesn’t understand is how this two-time All-Star fell off a giant cliff (Specifically to my roommate, ‘Because Cam just sucks’ is not a valid reason).
The Possible Reasons for Decline, and Why They May or May Not Hold Water
Injuries led to an early decline- That’s what we all initially thought, except that Cam’s been healthy now for the better part of three years, can still make some spectacular saves, and he never injured his glove hand. Doesn’t hold up
Poor defensive talent in front- Cam was tirelessly overworked, especially during his best years, behind a mediocre Hurricanes defense. Yet, while he and Lack have been hung out to dry a couple times this year, the defense last year was a huge step up from years past, and Ward still put up identical mediocre numbers. Further, in his statistical best year, the 2010-11 season, he led the league in shots against, and still put up his career-best .923 Sv%. I don’t know, maybe it all caught up with him.
Off-the-ice distractions- If you haven’t read Cam’s Players’ Tribune article about his son, you should stop reading this and go read that. Right now. If nothing else, it will make you love Cam Ward, the person, a little more. That all started towards the end of 2010, which coincided with the end of his dominance, and any parent can tell you how distracting family issues can be from a work performance. Yet, on the surface, it’s been six years and he’s got a new contract so….shouldn’t it be less of a distraction?
Head games- Like the kicker in football and the pitcher in baseball, playing goalie depends more on a solid mental game than any other position. Based on his reactions, Cam seems more angry about those soft goals than the fans are, if that’s possible, and this could harm overall confidence. There are even darker, unsubstantiated rumors regarding his mental game that might affect his play, but even if there were a mental block right now, Cam Ward has played consistent. Consistently mediocre, but consistent.
Dave Marcoux- The Hurricanes have not had a single successful goaltender since Marcoux took over as goaltending coach. Not one. Khudobin took a great season before Marcoux showed up and then crashed and burned under him. Lack hasn’t done any better, after putting up stellar numbers in Vancouver. And Ward is Ward. An important note here: Every single one of Cam’s all-star caliber seasons was played under Tom Barrasso as the goaltending coach. Barrasso left in 2011. Interesting coincidence.
We’re Stuck with Cam Regardless
Regardless of reason, available talent or any fan’s personal opinion, Cam Ward will start a significant number of games for the Hurricanes over the next year and a half. Maybe Ron will trade for another goalie, maybe not. The soft goals are going to be something Canes fans just have to live with for the short-term. In the meantime, all we Hurricanes’ diehards can do is suck it up and hope that Cam can find any smidge of the All-Star netminder that may still be in him to help us to playoff-land once again.
Hey, it could happen.