Hurricanes fans are fearing the worst right now, as it was announced earlier this morning that their goaltender Cam Ward will miss the next 6-8 weeks with an MCL sprain. Things certainly could have been a lot worse judging from how bad the injury looked when it happened, but at the very least, it's good to know that this isn't anything season-ended or career threatening. That's the good news, the bad news is that the Hurricanes are going to be without their starting goaltender for possibly the rest of the season and that's a big piece to lose no matter what team you are. Ward wasn't having a great start to the year, but his last five games have been terrific and he has stolen more games for the Hurricanes over his career than he has lost.
What many are wondering now is whether or not losing Ward for the next two months will ruin Carolina's season. To put it bluntly, no. Ward is a very good goaltender, but he is not elite and this has been restated countless times. His performance since 2007 has ranged from above average to great and his even strength save percentage was at only .917 this season, which is slightly below average. The one thing that Ward provided was stability in net since he has been the goaltender in Raleigh for so long. He isn't Pekka Rinne or Henrik Lundqvist, so the Hurricanes just need to get average to above average goaltending out of Dan Ellis and Justin Peters the rest of the way and they should be in good shape.
The question then becomes whether or not Ellis/Peters can provide the Hurricanes with that.
The rule of thumb with goaltending is that predictions are basically useless and you never know what to expect with them. This is especially true with only 27 games remaining in the season. Ward's numbers tend to fluctuate a bit over the course of a season but you generally expect him to end up with an EV save percentage of around .918-.923 at the end of the season and know what you're going to get. Ellis and Peters have been pretty much the opposite of that and it's mainly because they haven't played in many games.
I talked about Ellis and his hot start a week ago and how he was likely going to regress soon, but his career numbers have been around the .919-.923 mark when he was playing around 30-40 games a year. The one exception was his 2010-11 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning where he posted a sub-.900 save percentage for most of the year. Compare that to his career numbers and I feel safe to say that it's an aberration and Ellis has been an average to above average goalie in limited action. Whether or not he can give the Hurricanes that while starting the majority of games down the stretch remains to be seen.
Justin Peters, on the other hand, is a bit of an interesting case. He has played only 28 total NHL games and his performance has been largely uneven. He had a decent nine games with Carolina in his first season but completely fell flat in his second year as Ward's back-up. Peters would then play seven games with Carolina last year and posted unbelievable numbers. The graph below shows how much of a roller coaster Peters journey in the AHL has been.
Peters has been either Hasek or Grahame on any given night without much in between, or at least that's been the case in the NHL. Either way, I think it is fair to say that his "true" talent level at the NHL is unknown and the Hurricanes are going to have to find out the hard way by letting him play some games during the remainder of the season. Peters has been in the system long enough to earn this shot, so I think we will be seeing him start a game for the Hurricanes very soon. How he will perform there remains to be seen and his performance in the AHL isn't exactly making the crystal ball any less hazy.
Sure, Peters' save percentage of .921 is 7th best in the AHL and it looks strong on paper, but let's remember than anything can happen in 27 games, possibly less since Ellis might get the bulk of the starts. Looking at Peters' performance by game with the Checkers this year tells us that the Hurricanes really should just expect the unexpected with both him and Ellis.
Take any five-game stretch here and you could either get a goaltender with a save percentage of .920, .860, .960 or .900. In other words, anything can truly happen with Peters in the NHL and his performance with the Hurricanes last season is a prime example of that.
My opinion is that the Hurricanes have been a good enough team at even strength to get by with average goaltending, so all Peters and Ellis have to do is not stink for the next 20 games or so and the Canes should be in good/decent shape heading into the playoff stretch. Whether or not they give the Hurricanes good enough goaltending remains to be seen but at this point, it is silly to write off Carolina's season because of Ward's injury.