Without playing a single regular season game in Carolina, goaltender Eddie Lack has earned a contract extension from the Hurricanes. That could mean the writing is on the wall for veteran netminder Cam Ward, whose play has been in steady decline over the past four seasons.
Saturday, GM Ron Francis handed goaltender and off-season acquisition Eddie Lack a two-year, $5.5-million extension before he has even played a single regular season tilt for Carolina. And with that, the writing may be on the wall when it comes to Ward’s future with the Hurricanes.
Lack, 27, has only two years of NHL experience, though he has been arguably one of the better backup or part-time netminders in the league over that time. In his past two seasons in Vancouver, over which time he played 82 games, Lack posted a 34-30-9 record, 2.43 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. Over the same period, Ward, 31, has a 32-36-11 record, 2.62 GAA and .906 SP in the same amount of action.
Granted, it’d be easy to argue that Lack has played behind a much better team in Vancouver than Ward has had in Carolina, but Ward’s play has been in decline over the past four campaigns. That’s not a blip, but the beginning of a bad trend. The kicker, though? Ward carries an enormous $6.3-million cap hit.
Ward’s decline began after the 2010-11 season, during which he had a resurgence of sorts. At 5-on-5, he was a top 10 goaltender, posting a .929 SP in more than 3,200 minutes of work. He faced the biggest workload of any netminder with an astonishing 4,238 minutes played in the Carolina goal. He finished with a 37-26-10 record and even got a couple nods for the Vezina Trophy. Since then, however, the drop off has been steady.
He followed up his 2010-11 campaign with a 30-23-13 record in 2011-12, which was paired with a 2.74 GAA and a 5-on-5 SP of .915, a middling mark in the NHL that campaign. It wasn’t a bad season by any means, but it was certainly a step back. He missed the majority of the 2012-13 lockout-shortened campaign due to injury, and upon his return in 2013-14 he had inarguably the worst season of his pro career.
In 30 games, Ward won just 10 while having a GAA of 3.06. Since 2010-11, only nine goaltenders have posted a worse mark in 30 games of action. That same season, Ward’s SP at all strengths was .898, third-worst in the NHL, ahead of only Reto Berra and Devan Dubnyk, who ended that season in the AHL.
One could consider Ward’s 2014-15 numbers a step up on his 2013-14 totals, but at 5-on-5, he was actually worse this past season than he was during the year prior. At even strength, Ward had a .914 SP, down a step from the .915 he posted in 2013-14. He allowed fewer goals, sure, but there are only three goaltenders who had a worse SP than Ward at 5-on-5 in 2014-15: Arizona’s Mike Smith, Edmonton’s Ben Scrivens and Vancouver’s Ryan Miller.
Carolina is in the midst of attempting to make a quick turnaround. When it comes to advanced statistics, the club was quite a bit better than what their end of season record — they finished eighth in the Metropolitan Division — would have you believe. The Hurricanes are a team building from the back end out with a plethora of young, talented defensemen in the system, such as Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy, Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury, the oldest of which is Faulk at 23.
In Ward, the Hurricanes have a 31-year-old goaltender whose decline has been very apparent. His play during the 2005-06 Stanley Cup run was remarkable, but that was 10 seasons ago. He’s not the same goaltender.
Unless he’s willing to be paid based on his play, not his prior earnings, there likely isn’t a future for Ward in Carolina. Or at least there shouldn’t be. Were Ward platooned with Lack, and were Ward to earn an equivalent amount, then maybe there’s a spot for him with the Hurricanes. But that would mean a pay cut of more than 50 percent and a lessened role, two things he might not be interested in taking.
The Hurricanes’ signing of Lack to an extension without him playing a single regular season start in Carolina shows the team’s willingness to move on from Ward, especially if the veteran goaltender is going to continue to demand a big salary. If he wants to earn top dollar, he’ll have to outperform Lack, but even that might not be enough. The Hurricanes are getting younger, cheaper and more promising and Ward just might not be in the plans any longer.