Over the past four seasons, Cam Ward has been one of the most under-appreciated goalies in the NHL. The gap between he and the "elite" netminders a la Ryan Miller, Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, and Henrik Lundqvist has statistically been marginal, and upon closer examination, Ward has not had the advantages in high payrolls, lockdown defensemen, or superstar puck-possessing forwards. The 2002 first round pick has often been out on an island, trying to keep a floundering franchise above water, yet he's posted above-average save percentages for the past four years in a row. But now that the Carolina Hurricanes are going all in by trading for Jordan Staal, signing Alexander Semin, and improving their defense, Ward seems primed to compete for a Vezina Trophy in 2012-13.
Of course, winning the Vezina can be about politics and reputation. And hockey is a funny sport when it comes to reputation. For some, say Marc-Andre Fleury for example, one Stanley Cup win or good game in the playoffs can make you overrated for years and years. It works that way with offensive defensemen who had one good year after the lockout or low-line forwards who got hot in a short series. For Cam Ward, the 2006 playoffs that put him on the map has worked against him. He's seen as a one-hit wonder who was average thereafter. Not that the '06 playoffs wasn't the real deal; it was. In a year where the league's average save percentage hovered around .900, Ward went 15-8 with a .920 save percentage during the Canes' Cup run. It was especially amazing when you consider how abysmal Ward was during the regular season. He posted an .882 save percentage and allowed 3.68 goals per game. It wasrightfully sotalked about as one of the most incredible out-of-nowhere performances in NHL history. But afterward, the 'Canes faded into obscurity and Ward was thought of only as "remember that guy who was great in 06?"
The odd thing is that his following season in 2006-07 was disappointing with a .897 save percentage, then 07-08 was so-so at .904. It wasn't until two years after his amazing playoff run when Ward started to take off. Look at his save percentages compared to the league since 2008-09:
2008-09 average: .908
2009-10 average: .911
2010-11 average: .913
2011-12 average: .914
Last season was his worst since 2007-08, yet it was still above average. This despite his poorly-constructed team that allowed the most shots per game in the NHL, ranked 20th in Fenwick Close, which owned the league's 22nd ranked penalty kill.
All that seems ready to change. The Hurricanes now own one of the league's most dynamic puck possessing wingers in Semin and best two-way centers in Staal. This to go along with proven veteran Eric Staal and budding superstar Jeff Skinner. With Staal and Semin added to the mix, forwards such as Jiri Tlusty, Jussi Jokinen, and Chad LaRose will be much more effective in lower-line roles than being asked to play against the likes of Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin night after night.
It's hard to underrate Staal's role in keeping pucks away from Ward. Staal is at his best when facing the league's top players, acting as a tough, yet skilled two-way player. Consider that on a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the middle, it was Staal who led the Penguins in Quality of Competition and Corsi Quality of Competition. The ex-Penguin also should shore up Carolina's abysmal penalty kill. It will be he instead of, say, LaRose, who is asked to play the toughest minutes. And history suggests he will succeed.
Staal's presence will allow Semin to dominate opponents' lower lines as he often did in D.C. Semin's QoC numbers were not as impressive as Staal's, but his With or Without You Corsi numbers were excellent at 5.21 while on the ice and -5.82 off and he was plus-1.9 in shots for vs. against per 60 minutes. The new-found depth should give Kirk Muller the opportunity to give Semin the sheltered minutes he needs to dominate puck possession on offense. With this, the Hurricanes won't be allowing the opposition's poorer players to get chances on Ward.
The Hurricanes' defense, led by Tim Gleason and up-and-coming defenseman Justin Faulk, still has question marks. The back end still lacks a true top pairing; the Canes will be counting on Gleason as to be their stay-at-home D-man and Faulk to act as an offensively-minded presence. The depth defensemen could be better with Joni Pitkanen, Jay Harrison, Jamie McBane, and the well-aged Joe Corvo acting as this year's Jaro Spacek.
While this defensive lineup by no means screams "lock-down", Corvo will be able to handle tougher minutes than Spacek did last season, and Harrison and McBane's increased roles against good competition should act as an improvement over Bryan Allen. Basically, the Hurricanes defense won't be worlds better, but it will be better. And it doesn't have to be world's better for Ward to compete for a Vezina Trophy. In fact, in Ward's best career season in 2010-11, the 'Canes defense was made up of Gleason, Corvo, Pitkanen, McBane, Allen, and Harrison. The only difference is Allen out and Fauk in. Considering Faulk is only 20, you'll take that any day.
Sure, the Hurricanes are not quite as stacked as the New York Rangers and they do not play a Ken-Hitchcock-like defensive system that allows average goalies to put up record-setting numbers, but they do have one of the league's most underrated netminders, who with two star puck-possessing forwards added to his roster, is primed for a season that will make people around the NHL forget about the 2006 playoffs.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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