The hottest of topics among Hurricanes fans online these days continues to revolve around the goaltending position.
Cam Ward and Eddie Lack have each had rough years for the second consecutive season, and while Ward has been better than Lack, he’s taken the lion’s share of the blame due to the fact that he’s started the vast majority of the team’s games this season.
But what sort of picture does the actual data paint when it comes to Ward? Is he as bad as his sharpest critics say? Is he as good as his fiercest defenders insist? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the middle?
I’m going to do my very best to answer those questions with a pretty deep dive into the numbers.
A Fall From Grace?
There isn’t much that can be done to sugarcoat Ward’s performances in recent years. From the beginning of the 2013-2014 season to today, there have been 59 goalies that have played in at least 2,700 minutes at 5-on-5 play.
According to Corsica.hockey, Of those 59, Ward ranks 57th in save percentage with a .9139 over 181 games. Only Jacob Markstrom (.9108 over 76 games) and Anders Lindback (.9126 over 68 games) have stopped pucks at a less effective rate. Lack comes in at 51st, which isn’t much better.
At that portion of the list, you basically just have a bunch of guys who were are at the bottom end of the spectrum in terms of back-up goaltenders. Nobody who ranks down there is leaned on as heavily by their respective teams as Ward has been by Carolina. To find a goalie who comes within even 30 of Ward in terms of games played, you have to go all the way down to the 39th spot on the list where you’ll find Jonathan Bernier and his .9206 over 175 games.
Further, the direction in which Ward has been moving over the course of these years is the wrong one. While there was a lot of talk during his hot stretch this year about how improved he has been from last year to this one, the data simply doesn’t back up that notion at all.
This year, Ward’s even-strength save percentage sits at .910, which is down considerably from last season’s mark of .918.
Of the 187 individual seasons over the last four years in which a goalie has played 1,000 minutes, three of Ward’s four seasons rank in the bottom 50 in terms of save percentage. His best season, last year, is good enough to have him at 133rd.
So, over the last four years, Ward’s best season still only puts him in roughly the 27th percentile in terms of goalies who see either starter’s workloads or above-average back-up workloads.
That just isn’t good enough, and as much as I want to see Ward succeed in Carolina, it’s hard to make an actual objective argument that he’s doing enough to maximize this team’s potential.
To his credit, the job that Ward has done on the penalty kill this season has been nothing short of fantastic, even though he’s slipped a bit in terms of shorthanded save percentage recently. He’s still a big reason why this team has the best penalty kill in the league.
The Bigger Picture
You might be thinking that it isn’t fair to pin all of this team’s shortcomings over this time frame on Ward. For the most part, you’d be right.
In 2013-2014, the Hurricanes were a disaster defensively, and the same could be said for the offense in 2014-2015. Ward’s struggles were a part of the team not being particularly good, but he definitely wasn’t the only or even main culprit in their failures to qualify for the postseason.
Last season it was also the case that Carolina’s lack of offensive production was a big problem, though to a slightly lesser degree than it was the year prior.
This year, however, has been a little bit of a different story. The ‘Canes still aren’t a great team offensively, but they’re far from the basement-dwellers they were in terms of goal production in the previous two years.
After ranking 27th and 25th in terms of 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes the last two seasons, they’re up to 19th this year.
That’s not great, but it’s certainly good enough to make the playoffs with help in other areas. Given the fact that the team has the league’s best penalty kill, and considering that they’re 7th in the league in shots conceded per 60 minutes, it becomes clear rather quickly where this team’s weakness lies.
There really isn’t a fathomable reason for a team that’s so good at suppressing shots (again, 7th in the NHL) to be 26th in the NHL when it comes to suppressing goals (GA/60).
You could (which I have) point to the fact that the defensive play of this team has regressed considerably from last year as a possible reason for Ward’s decline.
However, according to Corsica, the team ranks 21st in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes.
That’s not ideal, but the teams in the middle of the pack are so close together that they’re basically a rounding error or like, two good games, from being above average here. I don’t think it really explains the team being 29th in save percentage.
The bottom line appears to be that the Hurricanes are going to need to get better goaltending in a hurry if they’re serious about becoming a contending team during the window that this core group of players has.
Whether that comes from Ward, a prospect in the pipeline, or from someone not even in the organization right now, it has to come soon.
The offense is improving. This year’s team has improved pretty significantly from the last two years with the influx of talent that players like Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen have provided, and more help is on the way in the form of guys like Julien Gauthier and Nicolas Roy.
The defensive unit is going to be an incredible one. It hasn’t been quite as stout as it was last year, but that’s something that will be ironed out. The talent and ability is obviously there, as is the coaching. The recent slump is just that, and it’s temporary.
As those two units develop, the Hurricanes will have a chance to become a team that makes the playoffs on an annual basis. The talent for that is there. It will, possibly as soon as next year, be a matter of whether or not the ‘Canes can move out of the bottom third of the league in save percentage.
That has to be accomplished somehow. Whether it’s a change in positional coaching, a change in the personnel at the position, or figuring out what it’s going to take to get Ward and/or Lack to the point where they can combine to put up a ~.913 over a full season.
This year, they haven’t been able to come particularly close to getting that. For my money, while there are other factors that will keep this team from making the playoffs, it’s far and away the main issue with this year’s edition of the Hurricanes.