The Decline of Cam Ward

It's hard to think of a player on the Hurricanes who has seen a bigger heel turn than goaltender Cam Ward. After playing such a big role in the team's Stanley Cup victory in 2005-06, every Caniac has sung Ward's praises for years and it usually didn't matter how good or bad he played. He has been the Hurricanes starting goaltender for nearly a decade and has earned the reputation of being a "workhorse" goalie for playing so many games every year was considered one of the most "reliable" netminders in the league for quite some time. Even when he was injured last year, most considered him the Hurricanes "MVP" because of how their season fell apart once he went on the shelf.

Now, most of those praises have gone away and all the talk you hear about Ward is how the team "needs" to trade him. Ward has spent most of the last calendar year injured and when healthy, he hasn't been close to playing at his best level. Say what you will about Ward being overrated or overpaid, but an .893 save percentage is nowhere close to what the Hurricanes expect of him. That ranks him third to last among goaltenders in the league with at least 15 games played, ahead of only Devan Dubnyk, Kevin Poulin and Anders Lindback. Ward has usually gotten a mulligan in past years because the Hurricanes defense has often been very bad, but even in those years, Ward has put up much better numbers than this and if you are getting paid like he is, you have to bail out your defense every once and awhile. Ward clearly hasn't done much of that this season. 

So, the question currently surrounding the Hurricanes is what are they going to do with their goaltending situation. Anton Khudobin and Justin Peters have both done a tremendous job filling in for Ward and have given this team the best goaltending they've seen in years, but they are still left with three goalies on the roster and the one with the lowest save percentage has the biggest contract. Some might suggest trading Ward but one can only imagine how low his value is right now, especially with his contract looking more like an albatross with every game. 

In a normal year, Khudobin's performance is exactly what the Canes needed because Ward has lacked a suitable back-up for years but with Ward not being himself and the Hurricanes needing wins, Khudobin is likely going to get more starts from here on out, increasing his value and decreasing Ward's. This could change if Khudobin falls into a rut, but this is the current predicament the Hurricanes are facing and it's tough to decide what they should do about it. 

This team needs Ward to play well to be successful, but with Khudobin (and Peters to a lesser extent) both giving the Canes solid goaltending on cheap contracts, it makes you wonder how much the Canes need to be spending on the goaltending position. However, this also takes us back to how much the fan's perception about Ward has changed so much over the years.

When Jim Rutherford gave him that six-year, $37.8 mil. contract in 2009, no one had any problem with it. After all, Ward helped this team win a Cup, was entering the prime of his career and just had his best season as an NHL-er. This looked like a no-brainer at the time but goaltender performance is often very unpredictable and a big contract like this can easily look terrible if his performance declines or runs into injury problems. In the case of Ward, he's seen his share of both and it's put the Hurricanes in a very tough situation. 

Again, there are a lot who would argue that Ward has never been a $6 mil. goalie, but what he has done over the last year is nowhere near what is expected of him. There's plenty of things you can point to as the root cause of his struggles. 

Ward is currently on-pace to have his worst season in the NHL since 2006-07 and while I think his numbers should improve, he is still likely going to end up with above-average numbers for his standard. It's really easy to point to injures as what is causing Ward's struggles and it really makes sense when you put the pieces together. He had a pretty bad knee injury less than a year ago and injured himself again in October, so he's undergone a lot of wear-and-tear in a short amount of time. Rutherford even said in an interview with ABC 11's Mark Armstrong that Ward came back from his last injury "sooner than he should" and that "he probably shouldn't have done that," so Ward wasn't at 100% for most of the year. 

That said, he should be healthy now and we'll see how he plays down the stretch this season. It's also worth noting that Khudobin also sustained an injury earlier this year and it hasn't affected his performance that much. He was also out for more time than expected and he has been better than anyone could have hoped. So the whole injury "excuse" might not sit well with fans when you take that into consideration. Ward was also not very good last season before his injury, posting a .908 save percentage in 17 games before getting hurt. 

This is where you'll have some questioning Hurricanes new goaltending coach Greg Stefan and if his has played a role in Ward's struggles. Ward's been in the league long, but he's still only 29 and has spent most of his time working under Tom Barrasso. Yes, Stefan was Carolina's goaltending coach the year they won the Cup and Ward has worked with him before, but it's easy to forget how young Ward was that year and how much he struggled the following season. Ward posted a sub-.900 save percentage in both of his first two seasons and he hasn't posted great numbers under Stefan overall. 

Goalie Coach Ward GP Ward Sv% Other Goalies
Stefan 2005-07 88 0.892 0.889
Barrasso 2007-12 326 0.915 0.894
Stefan 2013- present 37 0.900 0.912

You can't dismiss what Ward did in the 25 playoff games in 2005-06, but those 25 games are way off from what he has done under Stefan otherwise. It's a little unfair to point to Stefan has the problem because Ward spent so much time under Barrasso and his numbers could improve over time. The Hurricanes have also seen much better play from their back-ups under Stefan these last two years than they ever had before, so why has Ward struggled so much these last two seasons?

Ward has been in the league long enough to where a goalie coach shouldn't affect his play this much, but I have notice him develop some interesting habits since Stefan re-joined the staff. The biggest of which is how he drops down to the butterfly much earlier than he has before. An example being on this goal scored by Blake Wheeler last season and this goal from Nikolai Kulemin a couple months ago. Ward plays a butterfly style but I can't remember him dropping down this early before, especially on shots from long range. I'm not a goaltending expert either, but it seems kind of point less to take away the lower part of the net when the shot is coming from a distance. It's a habit that Dan Ellis was also guilty of during his brief time in Carolina. He's also letting in more soft goals, but I hate judging a goalie that way because every goalie lets in their share of stinkers. Khudobin's had more than a couple that he probably wants back this year.

Again, I don't want to place the blame on Stefan because the Hurricanes other goalies have done quite well under him, especially Khudobin & Peters this year. It's possible that Ward's style just doesn't mesh with his, but a more likely explanation is that this is just a rough patch for Ward and he will rebound soon. I've made this case a few times because Ward has undergone so many peaks and valleys in his career. However, this one is looking more drawn out than any other he's had in awhile. 

This is Ward's career save percentage going by rolling 10-game averages with the black bars separating each season. Ward's struggled quite a bit over his career and has rebounded each time. His most recent terrible skid was in 2011-12 and he responded by having one of the best runs of his career in the second half of the season. He's currently on pace to have a bad stretch similar to that and there isn't a whole lot of time left for him in the year to rebound. He also hasn't gotten close to that level in awhile, which might be due to him missing so much time with injuries. Although, it's worth speculating if he'll ever have a run like that again and if his next peak will be him posting more pedestrian numbers than we are used to seeing. 

Something that a lot of people forget is that Ward entered the league at a young age. He won the Cup at only 21 years old and doesn't turn 30 until a couple more days. He also usually among the league leaders in shots faced because of how many games he played and how porous the Canes defense has been over the years. Only 10 other goalies played more games than him before their 27th birthday and only six goalies saw more shots. He has also been forced to play a lot of back-to-backs over the years, playing 18 in 2010-11 alone.

So, maybe a reason for Ward's injuries and struggles is due to him taking on a lot of mileage so early in his career. Goalie's not an easy position to play and your body can get worn down when you are forced to play so much in a season, especially at a young age. The amount of work Cam has seen since 2005-06 combined with his playing style has probably been hell on his body and that could be one of the causes for his struggles. The question is can he rebound and be successful in later seasons. It's really hard to say because there have been quite a few goalies who went through the same thing and their results are varied. 

Felix Potvin and Jocelyn Thibault both played over 300+ games and had a similar save percentage to Ward from their 21-29 age seasons and were in the league for 4-5 more years before hanging it up.Then you have someone like John Vanbiesbrouck, who also played 300+ games and posted worse numbers than Ward during those years. He was in the league until he turned 38. Chris Osgood also had a long career, albeit while posting below-average numbers, while posting similar numbers to Ward in his first 285 games so it's really tough to tell how Ward will do in the future seasons based on that. The similarity scores aren't pretty, though.

Either way, Ward has given the Hurricanes a lot over the years and while parting with him isn't going to be easy from an emotional standpoint, the Canes need to decide if this current rough patch is something Ward can rebound from or if they think it's time to move on from him. Due to his contract, they might be forced to hope for the former.