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Where does Cam Ward rank?

Cam Ward has started this season with an .861 SP and 4.50 GAA. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Cam Ward has started this season with an .861 SP and 4.50 GAA. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

In relation to his goalie brethren, where does Cam Ward belong? Opinions vary drastically.

“Upper echelon, but not top five,” one Twitter user chimed in. “Cam Ward is a top tier goalie!” wrote another.

Added a Canes fan: “Hard to gauge because our defense has been patchwork. I would say he's middle of the pack.”

The thing about Ward and his NHL history is that Carolina’s defense has always been average or below, so he’s been given a pass. But the fact of the matter is, ever since he became a full-time No. 1 NHL goalie in 2006-07, Ward has led the Hurricanes to one playoff appearance.

Think about that for a moment. The Canes have never had the best or deepest defense corps, but they haven’t been slouches either. They haven’t been the Islanders, Blue Jackets or Leafs. Eric Staal, Ray Whitney, Rod Brind’Amour, Justin Williams, Erik Cole and Andrew Ladd are some of the better players Carolina has had in recent years, but they’ve managed one sixth-place finish in 2009.

And is Carolina’s defense corps really that much worse than Tampa Bay’s or Florida’s? It’d be difficult to convince me Jamie McBain, Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk are a considerably worse top four than Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison, Dmitry Kulikov and Ed Jovanovski, the foursome Florida rode to a division title last season. They were backed by average starter Jose Theodore.

The Hurricanes have given up more shots than any other team each of the past two seasons, but that’s not enough to give Ward a pass. After all, Ottawa and defensively stout Phoenix stood 29th and 28th in that category last season and earned trips to the post-season. Boston ranked 29th in 2011 and won the Cup.

The Southeast Division has been ripe for the taking the past two years and Carolina hasn’t finished higher than third. Last season, with Washington in trouble, Florida was able to take the crown. Tampa Bay made a push the year before that, but fell short and landed fifth in the East with average NHL starter Dwayne Roloson. Carolina missed by two points that year.

Not trying to take a shot at southern markets here, but it is a good place for goalies (and players) to hide behind pre-established, generally accepted standards. Ward was a backup in 2005-06 and was thrown into the playoffs after starter Martin Gerber struggled against Montreal in Round 1. Ward and the Canes won the Cup that year and he’s been considered a top 10, or even top five by some, goalie ever since. Elite. He’s never won any individual awards and his save percentages have been mostly middle of the road for a starter.

Look at Roberto Luongo, who, while he was with the Florida Panthers, was considered the heir to Martin Brodeur’s throne. He was never able to lead those teams to the playoffs, but the shortcoming was shushed because of a lack of defense.

Then, after five years, four playoff appearances, one Vezina nomination and one William Jennings Trophy in Vancouver, there were grumblings he wasn’t a winner, wasn’t an elite netminder. He had just finished losing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

But overall, most remember Ward’s Stanley Cup from seven years ago, his considerations for Team Canada, and consider him an elite NHL goaltender. But would that be the general acceptance if he missed the playoffs five of six years in a more nationally visible market?

In his four starts this season, Ward has allowed at least two goals in the first period three times – the only time he shutout an opponent in the first was in Carolina’s 6-3 win over Buffalo. All the other games turned into losses. The mark of an elite netminder isn’t to force his team to win the game. Maybe he’ll turn it on yet – or maybe he’ll stay on this path.

With the spending and bulking up the Hurricanes did in the summer, expectations are higher than they’ve been at any time since 2006 and free passes are no longer acceptable. If early indications continue and Carolina misses the playoffs again, what to think of Ward then?

My guess is that Canes fan is right: he’s middle of the pack. Your average NHL starter.

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Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

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