Jamie Storr. John Grahame. Justin Peters.
The list of Carolina Hurricanes goaltenders who didn't pan out is a lengthy one.
Michael Leighton. Brian Boucher. Patrick DesRochers.
Not only is it lengthy, it's years-long.
Jean-Marc Pelletier. Tyler Moss. Dan Ellis.
It's a who's who of failure, of unrealized ambitions, of good ideas in theory that went spectacularly awry.
This year, so far, might represent a new nadir. Over his last nine games, Cam Ward sports an .880 save percentage - 25 goals on 209 shots - and a 3.06 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Eddie Lack in his nine-game sample this year has even more abysmal numbers - an .863 save percentage, 26 goals on 190 shots, and a 3.49 GAA.
This isn't a slump. It's not a run of bad luck. It's a complete organizational failure.
The Hurricanes haven't developed a starting goaltender through the system successfully since Ward made his debut in the 2005-06 season - and he's the only one since the team moved to North Carolina. In that time, the team has employed five goaltending coaches (or "consultants," in a few cases) in six different tenures, including two stints by Greg Stefan. From 2009-2012, the team did not have a defined goaltending coach, rather naming Tom Barrasso as an assistant coach in charge of the goalies.
Let that sink in: for three years, the Hurricanes had no one employed in the organization whose job it was to monitor development and progress of the club's goaltenders.
It shows. And it's not getting better anytime soon. Outside of Ward and Lack, the Hurricanes have four goaltenders under contract playing professional hockey at the moment:
- Daniel Altshuller (2012 round 3) currently leads the ECHL in goals-against and save percentage.
- Alex Nedeljkovic (2014 round 2) got a cup of coffee with the AHL Charlotte Checkers at the end of last season, but returned to junior hockey this year (and has been quite successful so far, to be fair).
- Drew MacIntyre (2014 free agent signing) is 32, and while he has played in 18 games for Charlotte this season following 51 appearances last season, he is not anyone's idea of a future NHL starter.
- Rasmus Tirronen (2015 undrafted free agent) has played eight games with the Checkers in his first professional season.
That's it. That's the list. Four players, three of whom can reasonably be considered to have some level of NHL potential well down the road.
It's an organizational failure at all levels. It's a failure of the front office. It's a failure of multiple coaching staffs. It's a failure of the scouting staff.
And it isn't like the Canes have had complete stiffs playing goal. Martin Gerber was fine in 2005-06 until Ward stole his job and rode it all the way to the Conn Smythe Trophy. Ellis was a competent, if not slightly above average, goaltender earlier in his career. Leighton was traded from the Canes to Philadelphia in 2009 and promptly platooned with a future Canes goaltender, Boucher, to lead the Flyers to within two wins of the 2010 Stanley Cup.
Perhaps there is hope for Nedeljkovic, just traded along with Josh Wesley from Flint to Niagara in the OHL onto a team that has a chance of making a run at the league title. But should he (or Altshuller, or Tirronen) pan out, he would be the first in over ten years to do so. Developing goalies isn't easy, but an NHL organization should realistically harbor ambitions for this happening more than once every ten years.
And for every Nedeljkovic, there's a Rob Zepp, a Magnus Akerlund, a Kevin Nastiuk, a Mike Murphy. You can't expect every goaltender to become a bonafide NHL starter, but you would think that someone would hit paydirt somewhere along the way.
Whatever it is, it isn't working, and it's time for the club to blow up the entire structure of goaltender scouting and development and start over from scratch. Find an amateur scout who covers goaltenders exclusively and devote resources specifically to the position. Cast a wide net to find the best goaltending coach who can work with every goalie in the system and develop them to their full potential. Hire a former goaltender as a pro scout who can work with the coach to identify possible trade targets or free-agent signings.
The Canes are slowly turning around the ship, especially on defense. The changes that have been made over the past few years organizationally have started to pay dividends. Look no further than Tuesday night's wild loss in Dallas, where of 11 Canes players to earn points, nine spent significant time in the Canes' minor-league system or entered the NHL straight out of their draft year (and six of those are 23 years old or younger). The system works when it's allowed to do so.
But all of this quality development is at the risk of being torpedoed by a pound-foolish approach to goaltending. It's a risk the Canes have no reason to take. Goaltending is the linchpin of successful teams. Ask the Oilers, who are at risk of squandering an all-world collection of young players because their goalies, for years, haven't been able to stop a beach ball. Ask the Stars, who were a young team submarined by subpar goaltending for two years before finally putting it all together this year. Ask the Leafs, where Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft remain four-letter words.
The Canes have the chance to avoid the pitfalls other teams have suffered. They must make significant changes to do so, and now's the time to do it.