You knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. The recent success of Michael Leighton along with the preseason struggles of Cam Ward have created a goalie debate of sorts among several Hurricanes fans. If Leighton's success continues, it's only going to heat up even more before it goes away.
First of all, these types of discussions are not unusual for hockey fans. The goaltender is the highest profile position in the game. It's also been called the most important position in all of team sports. While forwards and defensemen can make mistakes that often go unnoticed, if a goalie makes a miscue, it usually shows up immediately on the scoreboard.
The goalie is such an important position that a hot one can carry a team, even if the team isn't playing well. On the other hand a team could be dominating a game, but if the netminder allows a couple of soft goals, it can break the back of that otherwise superior team.
This controversy is nothing new for Caniacs.
Back in the 2002 playoffs, Kevin Weekes replaced Arturs Irbe in goal during the New Jersey series and helped to carry the team to an improbable series win. At one point, Weekes made an unbelievable, miraculous save in overtime against John Madden which helped the team to eventually win an all important, pivotal game.
Against Montreal, Weekes faltered a bit and head coach Paul Maurice switched up goalies one more time. Irbe went back between the pipes and played brilliantly up until the finals against the Red Wings.
This led to an interesting dilemma the following season. The original idea was to have Irbe and Weekes share time in the net. Weekes was the better goalie during training camp and started off in net at the beginning of the season. He continued his hotstreak into November and the team was winning, so Irbe didn't have much of an opportunity to play.
Irbe's infamous proclamation of "play me or trade me" divided the Caniac Nation. Some supported the "Latvian Wonder", a goalie who still holds the franchise record for most wins. Others supported Weekes, who had actually been playing pretty good hockey up to that point.
Soon thereafter, Cane after Cane fell to injury, both goalies tanked, and the team ended the year with the worst record in the NHL. Irbe was eventually sent to hockey's version of Siberia, the ECHL. That was quite a story in itself, as the franchise still had to pay him his 2.2 million dollar salary which made him the highest paid player in that league. His fans in Raleigh clamored for his return and some are still unhappy about his treatment, even to this day.
Could we have a similar "Weekes versus Irbe" situation again this year?
Several fans are less than pleased with Cam Ward's performance over the past two seasons. Some are even calling for the Canes to move on and give up on the young goaltender.
But if we look at his history in detail, it would seem way too early to give up completely on the 24 year-old. Much has been made about him winning the Conn Smythe in 2006, but that's not the only achievment for Ward. He has won the Player of the Year award while in the WHL. He was Goaltender of the Year in the WHL twice, and in 2004 won the Vaughn Goaltender of the Year award as being the top goalie in the entire Canadian Juniors.
The next season when he went to Lowell during the lockout, he set Lochmonster franchise records for wins, shutouts, GAA, and save percentage. His .937 save percentage led the entire AHL, during a season when many NHL players were biding their time in the minor leagues.
My point with all of this is that Cam Ward just didn't fall off a truck somewhere, get lucky at the right time, and end up winning the Conn Smythe. He has had tremendous success at every level in his career. It would seem pretty short-sighted to give up on him at this early stage, and I'm sure that the Hurricanes organization will not do that.
Let's take a look at another example.
I remember very well back during the 2002-03 playoffs when Jean-Sebastien Giguere came onto the scene. He almost single-handedly carried the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup Championship only to come up short in the finals against the Devils. He still won the Conn Smythe, even in a losing effort.
People were asking, where did this guy come from? It turned out that Hartford originally drafted the goalie, but traded him to Calgary for Gary Roberts, Trevor Kidd, and Andrew Cassells. That doesn't sound like too bad of a trade, but after two losing seasons the Flames gave up on the youngster and traded him to Anaheim for a 2nd round draft pick. After that playoff performance, Calgary fans were livid.
Now Giguere has the 3rd best save percentage among all active NHL goalies.
Back before the 2006-07 campaign, the Hurricanes signed veteran John Grahame to help carry the load and to tutor the young goalie. Unfortunately, Grahame never played up to expectatons and the pressure all fell on Ward's shoulders. So for two years, the goalie played without any dependable backup and with a less than effective defense playing in front of him.
That would be too much to ask of any young goalie.
While ex-backup John Grahame never played well enough to put any pressure on Ward for playing time, Michael Leighton seems to have what it takes to give "Wardo" a push. Just looking at the preseason numbers so far, one could make a case that Leighton should be the starting goalie on opening night.
Several fans started the debate over on the Carolina Hurricanes.com forum, but apparently the discussion became too controversial and it was deleted. I doubt that the topic will go away though, especially if Leighton continues his winning ways.
Having two goalies in a truly competitive situation should be good for the franchise, good for the team, and beneficial for each goalie as well.
One final thought. It's only preseason and Ward has barely had a chance to play four and a half periods of hockey.
Don't count him out, just yet.