There have been a lot of things that have led to the Hurricanes collapse over the last month but one of the most popular explanations for it is Cam Ward's injury. Ever since Ward sprained his MCL, the Canes are 7-16-3 and their even strength save percentage has plummeted from an average .920 to .910. Bad goaltending can sink any team and the Hurricanes have experienced that first-hand this season with both Dan Ellis and Justin Peters going through rough patches in his relief. Finding a back-up for Cam Ward has never been an easy task and many thought the Hurricanes solved this problem this year by bringing in Dan Ellis during training camp. Now that he and Peters have struggled after being thrusted into a starting role, it has many people lobbying for the Canes to find a back-up goalie this summer.
As far next season goes, the who the Hurricanes have under contract aside from Ward is Justin Peters. Peters is on a one-way deal making $500,000 next year, so this makes the situation a little more difficult than usual. If he isn't on the team or traded by next year, he will have to pass through waivers and be paid an NHL salary in the AHL. This is something that Hurricanes might be reluctant to do because it's paying extra money to a player who won't even be on the team. However, has Peters done enough to make anyone confident about him being the back-up goalie next year?
Personally, I think he has been taking too much fo the blame for the Canes struggles since the defense has been very bad and the team has struggled to score on a lot of his starts, but his numbers are all over the place. Not only for this season, but for his entire career.
All goalies are random by nature, but Peters' lows have been very bad over his career. Like, below replacement level bad and one of those stretches came earlier this year. Peters also has a career save percentage of .900 over 46 starts and 1288 shots faced. This is still a very small sample size to judge a goalie on, but it's very hard to be confident in a back-up goalie with a career save percentage that's around replacement level. Ward has been able to stay healthy over most of his career, but he has taken on a ton of mileage in recent years and would benefit from a goalie who can spell him whenever he needs a night off. I'm not sure if Peters is that guy.
What about Dan Ellis, though? He has similar issues.
Ellis has also been prone to some extreme highs and lows over his career with his most recent low coming after he experienced a leg laceration that somehow kept him out for only two weeks. Prior to the injury, Ellis was playing very well and had a respectable save percentage of .918. Since then, he has a save percentage of .885 and has allowed three or more goals in all but one of six games and has been chased in two of them. Not the performance you want from a goaltender in the latter part of the season, but Ellis' overall numbers from the year really are not terrible.
A save percentage of .908 is about what you would expect from a back-up and his even strength save percentage is an average .920. Ellis' numbers from earlier in the year were unsustainable but his recent struggles appear to be more injury-related than anything else. I've heard some people say that he is at the end of his career, couldn't handle the pressure of being a #1 goalie and the hockey gods were "punishing" him for throwing the team under the bus after a couple of games. Seeing all of thiese claims come up is kind of funny to me because an injury seems more believable. He had his leg cut open by a skate blade on March 21st and returned only 13 days later. For reference, Cam ward suffered a similar injury in 2009 and was out for over a month. Given that piece of information, it seems plausible to me that Ellis rushed back from the injury and it affected his play.
In a full-season, Ellis would ahve to play about 20 games or so to give Ward enough nights off. He has been able to do this plenty of times over his career, but does he still have enough left in the tank to do it now? Possibly. Something you need to remember is that most back-up goaltenders are not of great quality and the most you would expect out of them is a save percentage of .910-.915. Sure, there have been outliers in recent history (Brian Elliott) and some teams like Vancouver have the luxury of two starting quality goaltenders but the league average save percentage of a back-up goalie is usually about .908 to .913. Ellis has been able to give his teams these results for most of his career.
Compare Ellis' save percentage with the yearly average of back-up goaltenders and his numbers have been roughly in line with that. The one exception being his 2010-11 season where he was the Tampa Bay Lightning's 1A/B goaltender and completely bottomed out. I also included Justin Peters' yearly save percentage here and his numbers are a bit more extreme from playing fewer games. I still think the book is still out on him since he hasn't played that much overall, but Ellis is more of a sure-thing. Unfortunately, Ellis is still only an average back-up at best but that might be all the Hurricanes need while Peters is more of a black-box who has been below replacement level in some years.
So the Hurricanes options on the roster right now for back-up goaltender are a veteran back-up with a low ceiling in Ellis and an inexperienced netminder in Peters who has bad more times than not. Some might say that they want neither, but compare them to the options in free agency and Ellis becomes slightly more appealing. Most teams tend to lock-up their goaltenders long-term, so there are never many great names available on the market and that is the case this year. The Hurricanes may only need a back-up, but even the options there are limited. In addition to Ellis, the back-up goaltenders who are free agents this coming summer include names like Chris Mason, Jose Theodore, Al Montoya, Mathieu Garon, Jason LaBarbera and Thomas Greiss. Greiss and LaBarbera are the only two who have a better save percentage than Ellis and the former has played in only six games. Ellis' career numbers are also favorable compared to them.
The Hurricanes options for a back-up goalie this summer are to either retain Ellis, try out the roller coaster that is Justin Peters in that position or make a push for one of the names on the list. I don't think they will have to pay much since the best player available is Jason LaBarbera, but there are going to be other teams looking for the same thing so that might drive his price up. They could always take a chance on a player like Greiss or Montoya for a low cost, too but they might as well just roll with Peters instead of signing an uncertain option. If Brian Elliott (and Brian Boucher) have taught us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a "sure" goaltender and their performance is incredibly random.
That being said, Ellis might be the safest option for Carolina next season and he should come at a cheap cost. The only issue with re-signing him is finding out what to do with Peters since he is on a one-way deal. For whatever reason, he just hasn't worked out well in Carolina and I'm not sure if I trust him in a back-up role next year. Like I said earlier, Ward is going to need someone who can spell him for 20 games or so. Ellis has a history of being able to do that while Peters does not and has a scattered NHL record. Filling the back-up goaltender spot is thought to be easy in the NHL, but the Hurricanes have a couple of tough decisions to make this summer concerning this spot.