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The Great Goaltending Debate of 2015-2016: Cam Ward or Eddie Lack?

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Eddie Lack and Cam Ward give the Carolina Hurricanes a capable goaltending duo heading into the 2015-2016 NHL season, but who should be considered the statistical favorite to lay claim to the starting job when October rolls around? Let's take a look.

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In what can only be described as a rare occurrence throughout Cam Ward's tenure as a Carolina Hurricane, there is a legitimate question as to who will be the Hurricanes' starting goalie when opening night comes around in October. Eddie Lack, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks on the second day of the NHL Draft, should rise to the occasion and prove himself to be a worthy competitor for Ward's starting spot during September's training camp.

But while the starting goalie will largely be decided upon based on performance in preseason exhibition games and training camp practices, perhaps there is some way to take a look at recent statistical performances from both goalies and draw conclusions as to who may be the better choice for Bill Peters and his staff.

Ward has been Carolina's starting goalie for almost an entire decade now, and there's something to be said for that kind of loyalty and longevity. However, I think there's a very strong statistical case for Lack to be the one to end his reign as the Hurricanes' full-time number one backstop.

For the sake of this discussion, I'm going to make a few assumptions about the performance of the team in front of both Ward and Lack. They are as follows:

  • The Hurricanes allow the same amount of even strength shots as they did last season. This basically means I'm assuming that the team in front of the goalies is not significantly better or worse than they were last season defensively.
  • Both Lack and Ward perform exactly in line with their cumulative three-year qualified save percentage numbers. This isn't overly likely, but it gives us a much better idea of what to expect from the two goalies than it would assuming last year's limited sample size holds more accurate.
  • Whoever wins the starting job will get 50 games, while the backup will get 32. Of course, plenty of other scenarios exist, but barring injuries and based upon how Bill Peters used Ward and Anton Khudobin as a tandem a year ago, this seems the most feasible starting point to me.
With these assumptions in place, we now have the framework to project how the season could unfold from a goals against standpoint for both starter/backup scenarios. I'll start with what I find to be the more likely of the two scenarios, that Ward performs well enough in training camp and in the preseason to maintain his role as the team's starter.

Note: All of the following statistical data is gathered from War-On-Ice.com and their fantastic qualified shot data.

If Cam Ward Is the Starter:

Operating under the assumption that Ward gets 52 games and Lack gets 30, here is how the workload would shake out based upon the defensive performance of the Hurricanes in their lone season under Peters:

Goalie High Danger Shots Medium Danger Shots Low Danger Shots High Danger GA Medium Danger GA Low Danger GA
Ward

319

310 476 58 23 17
Lack 204 198 305 37 15 8


Here's how these numbers were arrived at. Last season the Hurricanes surrendered 781 low-danger shots, 508 medium danger shots, and 523 high danger shots. As I stated earlier, the assumption going into this is that the team matches these numbers again next season, which would indicate an equal defensive quality of the team. Whether or not this is actually the case is anyone's guess, but this is the best way to estimate these numbers for the sake of the conversation.

The shots were then divided up to reflect a 52/30 split of the workload. Then from that, I used Ward and Lack's even-strength save percentages in each of the three categories from a three year sample. Barring significant over or under-performance, this is roughly how it might shake out if Ward is the starter next season.

Using this method, the Hurricanes would be expected surrender 158 even strength goals next season. The upgrade from last season's version of Khudobin to Lack brings that number down slightly from the 161 they gave up last year. The Hurricanes scored just 124 even-strength goals last year, so if that stays the same the goaltending improvement with Ward starting and Lack backing him up would raise the team's even-strength GF% ratio slightly from 43.5% last year to 44.0% next year.

That's better, but still not very promising. Let's take a look at how the projected numbers would play out if Lack wins the job and runs with it.


If Eddie Lack Is the Starter:

Operating under the assumption that Lack gets 52 games while Ward gets 30, here's how the team's goals against numbers would look if both players perform at their recent averages and the team matches last season's defensive performance:

Goalie High Danger Shots Medium Danger Shots Low Danger Shots High Danger GA Medium Danger GA Low Danger GA
Lack 319 310 476 57 19 10
Ward 204 198 305 37 15 11

As you can see, having Lack as the starter would lead to a better expected outcome than having Ward as the starter. Compared to the expected even-strength goals against of 158 in the Ward-led projection, the 149 projection in the Lack-led alternative is obviously a bit better. Even if the offense remains at a lackluster 124 even-strength goals next season, Carolina's goals for percentage at evens would jump to 45.4%.

This is entirely attributable to the fact that over the last three seasons, Lack has outperformed Ward in each of the three shot quality-centric zones. Lack's HDSV% of  82.09% slightly bests Ward's 81.71%. Lack's MDSV% is 94.12% compared to Ward's mark of 92.67%. Even with LDSV%, Lack's 97.51% tops Ward's 96.43%.

* * * * * *

All that being said, there is reason for optimism in the idea that both goalies could outperform their past averages. Both goalies are entering contract years. On the brink of entering unrestricted free agency, both players will be looking to play at their absolute bests so that they can maximize the value of their next NHL contracts, whether those come here in Carolina or elsewhere around the league.

Be sure to let us know in the comments what your thoughts are with regards to the Ward/Lack tandem ready to take over between the pipes in Raleigh. Who do you think should get the nod as starter and why? Thanks for reading.