After a run of several rough seasons in which he was making $6.3 million on an annual basis, Cam Ward’s contract expired after last season.
Having been the team’s starting goaltender for about a decade at the time, the franchise came to a crossroads.
They could either bring Ward back, or they could let him go, and turn to the free agent or trade markets to find a new starter.
They opted for the former.
After Ward had a less than stellar start to the season this year in October, the Albertan goaltender seems to have finally found his stride in a way that he hadn’t since about the 2010-2011 season.
In 133 games over three seasons between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, Ward’s 5-on-5 save percentage was just .915. That number also happens to represent league average, all situation save percentage. Ward’s all-situation save percentage in that time frame was .907, which is firmly below average.
However, Ward has started to turn a corner ever since pretty much the beginning of this November. He’s been so good since then that his aggregate numbers for this season are solidly above league average even including a quasi-disastrous October.
According to corsica.hockey, his low-danger save percentage has stayed the same this season, holding steady at .976, which is the same as it was the previous three seasons. His medium-danger save percentage increased from .926 to .946 Finally, his high-danger save percentage has risen to .786 from .781.
So virtually the entirety of the gains have come from his improvement in stopping medium-danger shots.
This season, there have been 22 goalies who have played 800 minutes for their teams at 5-on-5. Of those 22, Ward ranks 8th in MDSV%. He also ranks 18th in LDSV% and 16th in HDSV%. In total even-strength SV%, he’s 13th.
So of the regular goalies in the league, he’s actually still below average when it comes to stopping pucks at even-strength. Fortunately for Ward, not all of a hockey game is played on 5-on-5 terms.
This brings us to where Ward really starts to stand out from the pack, on the penalty kill.
There are 21 goalies in the league who have played at least 100 minutes with their team in a 4-on-5 situation.
Of those 21, Ward is far and away the best in terms of save percentage at .946. Jaroslav Halak is the next best all the way down at .915.
So Ward is quite the outlier in that data set. Last season, his save percentage in the same situations was .859. The year before that, it was .885.
So it seems statistically unlikely that he would be able to maintain such a high shorthanded save percentage. It’s possible that the team’s penalty kill being better has made his job a lot easier on the kill, but there’s no possible way for that to account for about a 70-point difference in save percentage from the last two seasons combined to this one.
So I’m skeptical as to how sustainable Ward’s success while the team is shorthanded is going to wind up being over the long run, but I’m encouraged by the slight but clear uptick we’ve seen from him in terms of even-strength performance.
As long as he can keep that even-strength number in the .925 range and the shorthanded number above .900, I think you’ve got to consider his season a clear improvement from the previous several, and thus a successful one.