The common narrative on the Hurricanes demise last season was that the team fell off the rails once goaltender Cam Ward got hurt, and it's easy to see why someone might come to that conclusion. The team went 7-17-3 once their starting netminder went down and gave nearly four goals per game during that stretch. I don't completely buy that theory because the team had a lot of other problems unrelated to goaltending at the time (no depth scoring, bad defense, injuries) and they probably would have finished outside the playoffs even if Ward was healthy.
Still, the common belief is that the Canes will only go as far as Ward takes them and him being healthy should lead to some better results. That is, until the preseason started and Ward gave up 11 goals in his first two games played. Now you have a lot of fans panicking about Carolina's goaltending situation and calling for Anton Khudobin to start on opening night. Ward has been prone to slow starts before, so what he is going through now isn't anything new, but sub-par goaltending is what sunk the Canes it he second half of last seasons, so they will need Ward to be in top form this year.
What is "top form" for Ward, though? Some might have the perception that he is an elite goatlender because he has been a workhorse for the better half of the last decade, but the numbers suggest otherwise. Ward's a very good goalie, but the Hurricanes might run into problems if they are expecting him to stand on his head this year and it's not just because he is coming off an injury.
I've written a lot about Ward in the past and my thoughts on him are that he is an above average goalie that is prone to hot and cold streaks during stretches of the year. Granted, you can probably say this about a lot of goalies, but Ward's recent numbers indicate that he is an above average goalie. That is enough to get you by on some teams but the Hurricanes have struggled to stay in the playoff race despite Ward's best efforts. Carolina's defensive play is partially to blame for this, as the team regularly gives up 30+ shots a night and Ward has to play at a high level to keep them in games. Another thing that has contributed to this is terrible back-up goaltending, which has been a problem in Carolina ever since Ward took over as the starter.
Whether it was Brian Boucher, Justin Peters, John Grahame or Michael Leighton, Carolina has consistently gotten replacement level or below-average performance out of their back-ups. This was a huge problem in 2010-11 when Carolina was only one game away from the playoffs. Paul Maurice rid Ward like a pack-mule that season and started him 74 games. Ward responded by having the best season of his career and that still wasn't enough to get the Canes into the playoffs because Peters was just that bad in the 12 games he had to play in. If terrible back-up goaltending is enough to keep Carolina out of the playoffs in a good year for Ward, then one can only imagine what the results would be if Ward has an average or bad season.
This is where the Canes are hoping Khudobin can step in. He has posted great numbers in limited NHL action and might be able to spell Ward in the event of a back-to-back or when he goes through a rough stretch. You can't expect a lot out of back-ups, but if the Canes were to get 20-25 games of Khudobin posting a save percentage above .910 then it would be a considerable improvement over previous years. That said, Ward will also need to have a good year and show everyone that last season was nothing more than an anomaly.
Ward is still only 29 and isn't near the end of his career, but he has taken on a lot of mileage the last few years, which means that injuries and fatigue are a concern with him. He has also shown some rust during the preseason, presumably from not playing much, and hopefully this will show the Canes that they can not rely on goaltending to bail them out every night. Getting a good season out of Ward and Khudobin will be important, but the Canes will probably be in trouble if they force either of them to see 30+ shots a night and steal games for them.
The improvements Carolina made on defense this offseason could help them lighten the workload on their goalies but ideally, I would love to see Carolina be the team that carries the play at even strength and is defending less than 50% of the time. Goaltending becomes less of a factor this way and Carolina can still be a winning team while getting above average performances out of Ward & Khudobin. This formula worked out pretty well for them in 2008-09 and they showed signs of becoming this kind of team last season before the injuries hit. I don't know if they have the personnel to be a top possession club, but adding Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin & Andrej Sekera is a good step towards doing that.
As it stands now, goaltending will likely play a big role in how far the Canes will go this year but they may not need Ward to repeat 2010-11 for them to be competitive. On paper, this team should be better defensively and a stronger possession club on top of that. This will help the Canes rely less on their goalies but Ward and Khudobin still need to do their part in goal. Ward's had some problems during the preseason but here's to hoping that he turns it around once the games begin to count.