While young Nicolas Roy played in his first game in a Hurricanes jersey on Saturday night, a select group of players likely played their last.
Featured on the list of Carolina’s pending unrestricted free agents are the likes of Derek Ryan and Lee Stempniak, a pair of veterans who have seen their 2016-17 success - and their ice time - falter quickly down the stretch of the 2017-18 campaign. While nothing is ever certain in the National Hockey League, it looks like those two forwards will hit the open market on July 1 in hopes of seeing their NHL careers continuing with different organizations.
Also on that list is Cam Ward.
While Ryan and Stempniak’s future may be written on the wall, Ward’s fate is far from a slam dunk. It’s more like Lonzo Ball shooting a free throw or the odds that Justin Faulk will embarrass himself on any given shift - roughly 50/50.
“Cam’s been a rock for us this year,” Justin Williams said following Carolina’s game 82 victory. “Regardless of what people say or what’s written about him, he’s a rock for us.”
The opinion of the 34-year-old goalie in the locker room and in the fan base seems to be entirely different. You will very rarely hear anything bad about Ward when asking his teammates their opinions, and the opposite is true when you ask a random person standing in line at a PNC Arena concession stand.
Cam Ward is one of only two players who connect the 2018 Hurricanes with the organization’s lone championship - Williams is the only other example. That said, the aging net minder is the only player who connects this team with each of the past nine years and 11 of the past 12 years of missing the playoffs.
That doesn’t bode well for Ward, regardless of what his teammates have to say about him. Ultimately, his body of work over the past half-decade has been, statistically, below average. That, in part, has led to the Hurricanes setting up shop at the bottom of the NHL team save percentage stat on an annual basis.
The other part of that equation has been Carolina’s inability to find a 1B or, in this year’s case, a new starter that can avoid having the worst save percentage of anyone in the league.
That’s why the Hurricanes find themselves in yet another tough situation.
Scott Darling came in and put up the worst numbers of any goalie in the NHL with 20+ appearances. Even Ward’s below-average numbers look good in comparison.
Be it because of bad scouting, bad coaching, bad team system, or just bad luck; Raleigh has turned into the league’s goalie wasteland. If you’re a good goalie and you sign with the Hurricanes, you will be bad.
Now that Ron Francis’ role has diminished exponentially and new team owner Tom Dundon appears to be making significant changes both in the front office and on the ice, maybe that will change but, like Justin Williams said with regards to the Canes being a playoff team; “You don’t know until you know.”
Whatever goalie curse has been put upon this team needs to be lifted in some form or fashion if they ever want to be good. This offseason is indescribably important. Over the next few months we will see if Dundon practices what he preaches and makes real, tangible change to the make up of this team.
It starts with getting a GM. The idea of “GM by committee” being thrown around in some circles sounds like an interesting idea. I mean, name just one time in history that dividing up a role meant for one person backfired.
As a wise man once said; “Look it doesn’t take a genius to know that every organization thrives when it has two leaders. Go ahead, name a country that doesn’t have two presidents. A boat that sets sail without two captains. Where would Catholicism be, without the popes?”
A recent example of this is the co-captain debacle wherein the team screwed up something that seemed to be impossible to really screw up.
Regardless, the new general manager(s) will have to shake things up, from the goal line out. While Darling’s contract still has three years and north of $12 million remaining on it, Ward is set to walk out the front door and, though he is absolutely not the reason why the 2017-18 season went the way it did, the Hurricanes might need to let that happen.
Team president Don Waddell said it himself a couple of weeks ago, this team absolutely cannot enter the 2018-19 season with the same goalie duo. That means one of Darling or Ward has to not be a part of the equation.
If it were up to me, both goalies would be gone and two new guys would come in, but that doesn’t seem to be the most realistic possibility.
Second on my list of preferences would be reverting back to the plan entering this past season - a new guy comes in and Cam Ward serves as the back up.
While there’s a misguided narrative that the team never gave Darling a chance as the number one goalie, that really can’t be further from the truth. On December 1, more than a month and a half into the season, Darling had started 18 games to just six from Ward despite the latter goalie’s quality of play being far better. If anything, the team put too much trust in Darling through the first couple of months.
They reverted back to Ward when they were given no other option. It was either lose with Darling or at least have a chance with Ward. The coaching staff would’ve have been pretty stupid if they didn’t do what they did, which is weird because that staff seemingly spent the entire season making pretty... interesting decisions.
If they are able to pull off some kind of series of transactions that results in a legitimate, proven starter entering the fold, Ward serving as the back-up, and the team not being in financial hell, I think that could be the way to go. Cam Ward the back-up was a lot better than Cam Ward the starter, and the veteran was ready to accept that new role for himself on the team.
That’s really just based off of on-ice performance, though. That’s an entirely different discussion if the new coaching staff, assuming Bill Peters and company don’t return next season, finds it difficult to separate Ward’s history with the team from the equation and make rational decisions without fear of hurting people’s feelings. If they can’t, then letting Ward walk is a necessity.
In a more realistic world, though; Darling comes back in hopes of resurrecting his career and battles it out with a worthy competitor for the majority share of starts. Hopefully, that goalie is, like I said earlier, someone who has been there and done it.
This is an extremely difficult situation to handle - if you don’t believe me, look at how poorly this situation has been handled over the past few years. Despite that fact, the Canes have to get it right this time.
Alex Nedeljkovic doesn’t look ready, no one else in the goalie pipeline looks primed to even think about competing for an NHL job next year, and the status quo has been atrocious. So, they have to do something. They can’t sit back and allow what happened this year, and the year before, and the year before, and the year before, and the year before, etc. to happen again.
One goalie needs to stay and one goalie needs to go. Regardless of which goalie falls in which category, they need to bring in an able body that can, at the absolute least, put together an average season in between the pipes. That’s easier said than done given the shallow goalie market in this year’s UFA class but, by way of trade or free agency, they have to get it done. Period.
The legitimacy of the franchise moving forward rides on this decision more so than any other decision that will be made this summer.