After the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night, Cam Ward sat at the bench with Mike Maniscalco for his first star interview. My initial reaction at the time was that Maniscalco was probably thinking “Fancy meeting you here.”
In 13 wins this season, Ward has been named one of the three stars ten times, and he’s the only multiple recipient of the team's ‘Chop Wood/Carry Water’ award. Despite not wearing a letter, the veteran netminder and longest-tenured Hurricane is obviously counted on to provide on and off-ice leadership to a young team building its identity.
Ward’s solid performance down the stretch last season led to a two-year contract extension that was met with mixed reviews. The question remained as to whether his recent success was sustainable. Despite some dips to begin the season, it appears that Ward is capable of keeping the team in the battle for a post-season spot. At least for now.
With 2016 is in the books, I thought it might be interesting to look at a quick comparison of Ward's stats season-to-date against the larger sample size of the last calendar year.
Cam Ward Calendar Year and Season-to-Date Statistics
|TOI (Rank)||3296 (10)||1784 (6)|
|5v5 LD Sv%||0.969||0.980|
|5v5 MD Sv%||0.939||0.928|
|5v5 HD Sv%||0.801||0.786|
While not setting the world on fire, Ward’s performance remains steady. Across the calendar year his .917 save percentage ranks even with Henrik Lundqvist and within spitting distance of both Ben Bishop (.919) and reigning Vezina winner Braden Holtby (.918). He also ties Holtby with a 2.29 GAA. Season-to-date he and Lundqvist are tied with a .916 save percentage, ranking them 15th when measured against the top 50 goalies in games played.
Ward is a beneficiary of the team's stellar performance on special teams. His .918 even strength save percentage is only good for about 35th best out of the top 50 (though not far behind Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury at .919), but he's third best among that same group when on the penalty kill, which brings up his overall averages.
That said, two statistics that aren’t all that noticeable might be the most concerning. Ward currently ranks sixth in the league in time on ice, and has started in 30 of 36 games played this season (a whopping 83%). By comparison, between January and April 2016, Ward was awarded 57% of the starts, splitting time rather evenly with Eddie Lack.
At 32, Ward is now the tenth-oldest netminder among NHL starters. But as a famous archaeologist once said, “It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.” and Ward is logging a lot of mileage at the moment.
Eddie Lack hasn't played in almost two months due to a combination of performance, injury, and illness. For Jorge Alves to get the call to back up in an NHL game was phenomenal and heart-warming, truly a story for the ages, and one that Canes fans should carry with them forever. Even if Lack had been available he would have been coming into Saturday’s game against the Lightning from a long layoff, and it probably wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But while Ward is 5-2-0 in back-to-back games over the last year, three games in four days with travel is a tough grind on the entire team, and the starting goaltender isn’t typically asked to shoulder that entire burden.
News from the team following today’s practice is that Lack did not skate and will be evaluated later today. If he’s not available, a goaltender (presumably Michael Leighton) will be recalled from Charlotte. If Lack is able to return to the lineup, this week would provide an opportunity for him to benefit from a conditioning assignment. Both the Canes and the Charlotte Checkers are in the midwest at the end of the week, and both play back-to-back games Thursday and Friday. It would be easy to make the swap between Lack and Leighton to give Lack some reps with the Checkers. That’s of course predicated on Lack being cleared to play from his most recent situation, and agreeing to a conditioning assignment.
Regardless, the Canes are faced with an immediate and urgent need for a reliable backup. Starting tomorrow, they play four games in six nights, including the previously mentioned back-to-back against two Central division opponents who are currently in playoff position. Mid-January, the team faces three games in four nights against three Metro division rivals above them in the standings (Penguins, Blue Jackets, and Capitals). Come mid-February, after the All-Star Game and mandatory bye week, the Canes are scheduled to play 29 games in 47 days, which according to my math is a game every 1.62 days.
Hopefully, Lack’s current situation is temporary and he’s in a position to return to the lineup soon. Otherwise, the organization may soon be forced to evaluate bringing in additional reinforcements in net if the team remains within a reasonable distance of playoff contention.
Cam Ward is doing his part to keep the team in the hunt, but he’s going to need some help, and soon.