Goaltending depth is an issue that has plagued Carolina for years. Ever since Cam Ward led this team to a Stanley Cup in 2006, the Hurricanes have struggled to find him a decent back-up and he often finds himself playing around 60-70 games a year. While not an elite goaltender, Ward has been a workhorse for years and has posted above-average save percentages behind terrible defenses for most of his career. With how much the Hurricanes lean on him, they have had to search for bargains when finding a back-up goaltender and for many years, they have struggled to fill that void. This year, however, the Canes find themselves in a completely different situation.
After how much goaltending played a role in Carolina's collapse last season, Jim Rutherford tried to solve this by bringing in Anton Khudobin to give Ward a solid back-up. Khudobin was far from the most proven option on the market this off-season, but he had posted great numbers in limited NHL games and was at least an upgrade over Justin Peters, who failed to establish himself as an NHL goaltender last year. With that in mind, the Hurricanes goaltending situation appeared to be set in stone as long as Ward could stay reasonably healthy. Unfortunately, disaster struck in October as both Ward & Khudobin got hurt and Justin Peters was forced to carry the load for a few weeks.
The Hurricanes came out of this stretch relatively unscathed, as Peters has given the Hurricanes very solid goaltending during his time, posting a .922 save percentage over 14 games and looking a lot more comfortable in the NHL compared to years past. This is good news because they could easily be near the bottom of the standings if he struggled, but it does create a complicated situation with what they should do with their goaltending. With Ward now healthy and Khudobin being relatively close to returning, the Canes now have three NHL goalies on their roster and it's tough to figure out what they should do with each of them.
The original plan was likely to send Peters down to the AHL once Khudobin or Ward healed, but he has been with the team too long and will have to pass through waivers if they want to send him down. He has also played like an NHL goaltender and will likely get claimed if they let him go unprotected. Then you have Khudobin, who has played only three games this year but has looked very good in limited NHL action. He might be a better goaltender compared to Peters and give the Hurricanes someone who can steal games even if he is just a back-up.
Jim Rutherford said that he plans to keep all three goalies for now but with teams like Chicago, Nashville and the Islanders possibly in the market for a back-up, that could change. He is in a good situation and one of the three goalies on the roster might be able to fetch a decent return. The question is which goalies should the Hurricanes keep and how will the Hurricanes use each of them for the rest of the year? After the jump, we'll look at what all three goalies and what the Canes can do with each of them.
As of right now, Ward and Peters are the only two healthy goalies on the roster and the Canes can roll with them until Khudobin is healthy, whenever that may be. With the Canes playing so many back-to-back games, it's easy to give them a decent amount of starts. However, there are some who are calling for Peters to get more starts because Ward has struggled a bit since returning from injury. His save percentage currently sits at .906 and he has looked very shaky in two of his last three starts. He has also allowed three or more goals in 10 out of 15 games this year, which is very concerning. Ward usually needs to play in a few games to get into a rhythm, but with Peters playing well and the Hurricanes needing points in any fashion, it isn't a bad idea to go with the hot hand for now. There are even some who are throwing around the idea of trading Ward and rolling with Peters & Khudobin as their goalies.
Ward is vastly overpaid, but he has shown the ability to steal games and what he is going through now is no worse than some of the struggles he has endured over his career.
Ward's struggles this year are somewhat overblown, as he has been above the .900 mark all season and hasn't even been close to where he was in the early part of last season and November of 2011. All goaltenders go through highs and lows and Ward is no different, so I don't think his recent struggles are anything to fret over. He should be back in his normal form once he gets some more games under his belt.
As for trading him, I'm a big fan of going cheap in goal because goaltending is so unpredictable, but the Hurricanes are going to have to sell low to find someone to take on Ward's $6.3 mil cap hit. On top of that, the Hurricanes would be left with a goaltending tandem of two unproven NHL goaltenders. Say what you will about Peters recent play, but his NHL track record has been far from consistent and his peaks & valleys have been much more extreme than Ward's.
Peters is currently on one of the best runs of his career but prior to that, there was a lot of doubt of whether or not he was even a capable of NHL goaltender. His poor numbers aren't entirely his fault and he has been victimized by bad defenses, but he hasn't shown the ability to be an NHL goalie until recently. Maybe it took him longer to figure it out than others, but does his play over a 14-game sample really give you enough confidence as someone who can handle a 1 A/B role? It's a risky proposition.
That being said, what Peters has done over the last month or so is probably enough for him to get swiped up by an NHL club if the Canes decide to waive him. His career numbers are still mediocre but he is a decent stopgap for a team looking for someone to fill in for a couple of weeks. His value is higher than it has ever been right now and the Hurricanes would be foolish to just give him away for nothing.
Then there's Anton Khudobin, who is sort of the "forgotten" one in all of this. The assumption was that the back-up role would be his after returning from his lower-body injury, but that isn't a given right now. Khudobin has missed so much time and it looks like Peters has at least earned the confidence of the coaching staff, so I doubt that they will just give Khudobin the back-up job without making him earn it. He has also been out for a lot longer than expected and there's no guarantee that he will be ready to jump right back in once he is cleared to play. Sending him to the AHL on a conditioning assignment may not be a bad idea, if only to give the Canes more time to decide on what they want to do with their goaltending situation.
Another thing to remember about Khudobin is that he isn't exactly a proven NHL goalie either. He has been great during his time in the NHL, but he has also played only 25 games and has spent a total of one season on an NHL roster. His career numbers are very strong, though (.932 save percentage) and he has shown the ability to be the type of goaltender who can steal games for you. This makes him a slightly more favorable option than Peters, as Khudobin's rebound control is very good and he has quick enough reflexes to make recovery saves when he does give up rebounds. He is still untested as an NHL goalie, but his raw tools are very good and it would be wise for the Hurricanes to see more of Khudobin before making a decision.
The whole situation is going to be tough to figure out. There's nothing wrong with carrying three goaltenders, but that makes it hard for the coaching staff to manage their playing time and get one of them into a rhythm. I'm sure the coaching staff doesn't want to just hand the back-up job to Khudobin either because Peters has played well enough to earn their trust and Ward will likely get the bulk of the starts regardless. This means that a trade is probably on the horizon and while Rutherford has some leverage, he needs to be careful with how he handles this. The injury problems with Ward & Khudobin make having depth so critical and all of that can disappear if one of these goalies is let go for little or no return.