Cam Ward’s Confusing Carolina Comeback
By now you’ve probably heard that the Carolina Hurricanes decided to sign Cam Ward to a brand new contract. The surprising part isn’t that Cam Ward received another contract – it’s the fact that we aren’t shocked. The move does not make sense for a variety of different reasons, but that didn’t stop the Hurricanes from bringing him back for two more seasons at $3.3M.
The Statistical Angle
It doesn’t take a math whiz to come to the conclusion that Ward has been costing his team goals against for quite some time. He has consistently posted below-average save percentages over the last four seasons.
Some may argue that he has been faced with the challenge of playing behind a weaker team, but the Hurricanes were actually surprisingly stingy on the back end last season. They gave up an average of 27.6 shots against per game – good for fifth in the league, behind Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Nashville. Each of those teams made the playoffs.
If Corsi is more your thing, NHL dot com lists the Hurricanes as the 11th best overall possession team in 2015-16. They carried the play at a clip of 51.5%. That’s only 1.2% worse than the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, who were second-best in the regular season.
Goals saved above average can be a very useful tool for judging whether a goaltender has been helping or hurting his team. Ward had some excellent years in his prime, saving the Hurricanes 22.9 goals against in 2010-11, when he was 27 years old. Sadly, his numbers have taken a nosedive since then. He has had a negative impact, according to the statistic, every season since 2012-13. With the positive run from 2008 to 2012 in mind, Cam Ward has still managed to cost the Hurricanes an extra 19.98 goals against over the course of his entire career compared to a league-average goaltender.
Even if we adjust for shot location, it’s not pretty. Using Nick Mercadante‘s AdjGSAA/60 statistic, only three goaltenders have had a bigger negative impact on their teams over the last four seasons than Ward. Those goaltenders are Anders Lindback, Curtis McElhinney, and Niklas Backstrom. McElhinney is only a year older than Ward, but makes a modest salary of $800,000 and is firmly planted in a backup role behind the former Vezina Trophy-winning Sergei Bobrovsky. Ward will be making $3.3M for the next two years, and even worse, he could potentially be used as a starter.
The Technical Angle
Although he possesses some fabulous skill, the technical side of Ward’s game has been flawed for quite some time. He has seen multiple system changes in front of him, and has worked with multiple coaches during this time – so the blame can only be squarely pointed at the goaltender himself.
He gets by on not only his skill, but also some very good play-reading ability. He is the epitome of a read-and-react type of goaltender, or a “rhythm-based” goalie. When his reads are on, his aggressiveness forces shooters to release when they are unprepared, and they often miss the target. When his reads are off? I think we all know the answer to that. This is essentially what got Ward to where he is today, and he isn’t about to change that part of his game – which is fine. Due to the skating involved, that style of play becomes more and more difficult as goaltenders age.
Some of Ward’s struggles lay in his tendency to pull off the puck, and his below-average post integration. He does not use the net as effectively as other NHL goaltenders. He has worked and improved at it, but he still has a long way to go. He added the reverse-VH technique to his arsenal in recent years, which shows his willingness to adapt to extend his career. He even removed the boot strap from his pads last season in order to achieve more ankle flexibility and freedom while in the reverse-VH position, but he still struggles with the finer details of the technique.
There are a handful of ways to get a push off the net while in the reverse-VH position, whether it is by using the boot-inside-post, boot-on-post, or skate-on-post variations. Ward defaults to boot-inside-post, and struggles to create a hinge with the post as plays move closer to the goal line. As a result, he is often caught in an off-angle position. When that happens, the puck either goes in, or he sends out a rebound into a bad area and is forced to make a desperation save. He does make those saves on occasion, but as all goalies know, it’s better to put yourself into a situation where you don’t have to make those saves.
The Personal Angle
It wouldn’t be as easy to break it off cleanly with Ward as some are making it out to be. He’s the goalie that brought the franchise into their glory days. He’s the goalie that burst onto the scene and captured the Conn Smythe trophy, en route to their first Stanley Cup. Along with Eric Staal, he’s one of the true ‘faces of the franchise’ – and Staal was sent to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline last season. How bad would the optics be to lose Ward and Staal in the same year? Would it be seen as a slap in the face to a player that was crucial to their Cup-winning run in 2006?
The Hurricanes are a rebuilding team, and should have come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be worth the resources to sign Ward to another contract. His perceived value is at a career-low, and he has been trending downward for at least half a decade. It seemed like the perfect time to let him walk, and usher in a new era. But that’s not what happened.
Unless they plan on minimizing his role, letting Eddie Lack run with it for a few seasons before top prospects Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth arrive – the move does not make sense. Even if that is the plan, they would be better off bringing in a different free agent goaltender that has the potential to turn into something. What about young goaltenders already in their system, like Rasmus Tirronen and Daniel Altshuller? A reasonable argument could be made that they both could perform at a rate close to Cam Ward at the NHL level if they were given a shot.
Here’s what Hurricanes’ GM Ron Francis had to say:
— Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) June 16, 2016
Now, he isn’t incorrect when he says that this year’s crop of UFA goaltenders is on the weaker side. That does not mean a panic-move to bring back a familiar face is warranted. Surely one of those free agent goaltenders would have accepted a one or two-year contract. If not, then (as stated before) promoting from within is still an option. Eddie Lack still exists and is more than capable of eating up games.
It’s nice that the team is high on Nedeljkovic as a future NHL goaltender, but the excuse that they didn’t want to bring somebody in that would block him is questionable. Even if he is the second coming of Carey Price, he just turned 20 years old. If he turns pro and immediately has success, then you deal with that situation when he pushes for an NHL job. Putting all of their hopes in a goaltending prospect like that is an odd way to construct an NHL roster. The goaltending market tends to fluctuate, and it’s never a bad thing to be on the side that has too much talent under contract.
Whichever way you look at it, however you slice it up – Cam Ward’s return to Carolina is a head-scratcher.
It isn’t a move that should cripple the team. They at least managed to convince him to take a pay cut from his previous contract. How they utilize him in 2016-17 will inform us if this was a move made out of respect to a long-serving fan favourite, or if it was an extremely miscalculated analysis of his value.