Ask anyone what the "turning point" of the season was for Carolina and I would bet money that at least seven out of ten people will say that their playoff hopes were doomed once goaltender Cam Ward got hurt. The Canes went 7-17-3 with him out of the lineup and were on the losing end of a lot of blowouts down the stretch, so it's easy to jump to this conclusion. While I don't doubt that having Ward in the lineup would have helped stopped the bleeding a little, his injury wasn't the sole reason the Hurricanes season went down the toilet in the second half.
Those who have been saying that "the losing streak would have never happened without Ward" are ignoring a few things. First of all, Dan Ellis gave the Canes very solid goaltending before he suffered an injury and rushed himself back from it. Secondly, the Hurricanes could not buy a goal to save their lives during the latter half of the season. They scored more than three goals in only one of their final 20 games and were held to two or fewer goals in nine of those games. Finally, and most importantly, Ward himself was not spectacular when he was healthy.
Ward is a very good goalie and having him instead of Peters down the stretch may have earned the Hurricanes a couple wins, but saying that his injury alone is what ruined Carolina's season is lazy and not looking at all of the details. As a team, the Hurricanes were bad in their last 20 games and unless Ward could channel his inner Tuukka Rask, it's likely that they would have finished outside of the playoffs even if he was healthy. Many have said that Ward would have given the team more confidence or "momentum" by making a few big saves but the facts are that the Canes were a terrible team at preventing shots on goal last year and had trouble scoring in addition to that. Unless you have an elite netminder, you aren't going to make the post-season with that combination and Ward's performance was not elite this year.
Now that we have that cleared up, let's take a closer look at the year that was for Carolina's franchise goaltender and compare his performance to Carolina's other goaltenders.
Ward in 2012-13
It was expected for a lot of players to be sluggish after the lockout and goaltenders who did not play during the work stoppage were who people were the most concerned about. It was going to be especially tough on Ward because he missed some of training camp with the flu and the Canes had just hired a new goalie coach in the off-season. Greg Stefan has worked with Ward before in the past, but it was still going to take a few games for Ward to get up to speed when you factor all of this in. This is exactly what happened, as Ward was not good at the beginning of the year. He let in four or more goals on fewer than 30 shots in his first two games and struggled to keep his save percentage above .900 for most of the year. Ward eventually rebounded after the two bad starts and only had three "blow-ups" for the rest of the year but he ended the season with a save percentage that is considered below-average by most metrics, and his even strength save percentage was only .917.
This was a down year for Ward, but I'm hesitant to put a ton of blame on him because he is constantly forced to handle a big workload every year. Not only does Ward typically play a lot of games, but he also sees more shots per game than any other goalie and this year was no different. The Hurricanes were a better possession club this year, but they were still giving up a high number of shots nightly and put a lot of stress on all three goaltenders. Among goaltenders who played 10 games this year, all three Carolina goaltenders were in the top 20 in shot attempts faced per 60 minutes at even strength with Ward ranking 15th.
SAF = Shot Attempts For, SAA = Shot Attempts Against, SAD = Shot Attempt Differential
The Hurricanes might have been creating more than they were giving up, but all three goalies had to see a lot of shots and bail the Canes out of way too many tough situations, especially at even strength. This is why I try not to be too hard on any of Carolina's goaltenders even if they don't post great numbers. It's hard to post a save percentage above .920 when the team in front of you is committing numerous defensive errors and you're constantly being barraged with shots. This has been the case in Carolina for the last few years now.
That being said, other goalies have managed to get it done (Reimer, Lehner, LaBarbera, etc.) and a good goaltender should be able to post an even strength save percentage of at least .915 even in front of a bad defense. Both Ward and Ellis were able to do this and Ward got much better goal-support, which resutled in the Canes winning more games with him in net.
An ongoing theory in Carolina has been that the team "plays better" in front of Ward than they do for either back-ups, but this wasn't the case this season. The Canes were actually a slightly worse possession team in front of Ward than they were Ellis or Peters but only by a little. They did give up more shots in front of the two back-ups than they did in front of Ward but their territorial play overall did not change much no matter who was in net.
The one big difference in the team's play in front of each goalie is that the team scored a lot more when Ward was in net, which is something he doesn't have much control over. Carolina scored over three 5v5 goals for every 60 minutes that Ward was on the ice and hardly gave either Ellis or Peters much goal support. Peters did not play well so goal support would not have mattered much in his case, but Ellis gave the Canes a chance to win in at least 50% of his starts and the Hurricanes scored fewer than two goals per game in front of him. That isn't going to win you many games no matter who your goalie is. Carolina's goaltending wasn't great this past year, but the play in front of the netminders was a bigger problem rather than the goalies themselves.
Going back to Ward, he had a bit of a down season compared to the last two years, but his ups and downs weren't very different from what the ones he has experienced over his career.
All goaltenders are streaky and Ward experienced one of his low points during the early portion of the season. The good news is that these stretches of bad play usually don't last for more than a few games and he was able to pick himself off the floor after his fourth start or so. The bad news is that he got hurt while his season was on the upswing and over the last few years, Ward has been capable of giving the Canes 2-3 weeks of extremely good goaltending. I still don't believe that Carolina would have made the playoffs if he didn't get injured, but this graph does make you ponder about what could have been.
Season Grade: C
Taking all factors into consideration, I think "average" sums up Ward's play best this year. He wasn't awful, but he wasn't particularly great either and had a pretty rough start to the year. I don't hold Ward to as high of standards as most Carolina fans who think he's in an elite class, but with a $6.3 mil. cap hit, I think it's fair to expect slightly better numbers out of him.
The Final Word
It's a little weird how much the fan base's opinion of him swayed this year. During the early portion of the season, he took a lot of criticism and many were calling for Ellis to get more starts. Once he got hurt and Ellis/Peters began to struggle, all you heard about was how much this team missed Ward and how his injury ruined any hope Carolina had. Ward has only played at an elite level for one season (2010-11), but most Carolina fans consider him a top-tier netminder and expect him to steal every game for the Hurricanes. Behind this defense, it's tough for Ward, or any goalie for that matter, to put up spectacular numbers on a yearly basis when the team in front of him is making him work this much. Ward's contract might say that he is an elite goaltender, but he's only put up those kind of numbers a few times in his career and will have his share of slip-ups.
Ward was not great this season, but I'm not too worried about how he will do next year. With a full training camp and off-season, he should be ready to go by September. If anything, the team in front of Ward is what Carolina fans should be more concerned about.