Canes facing big decisions in goal
Posted February 6
As the old saying goes, you can never have too much of a good thing. Generally, that's true - but there are times when too much of a good thing can make a situation complicated.
Take the Carolina Hurricanes' goaltender situation. Cam Ward has been the Canes' "franchise goalie" for years now. But injuries have plagued Ward in recent seasons, and it's hard to be a franchise goalie on when you're on IR. Ward has only played in 19 of the Canes' 55 games this season, and none since New Year's Eve.
During Ward's absence, all his would-be backup has done is get himself named the NHL's first star for the month of January. Anton Khudobin posted ten wins in that month, matching the franchise record. You don't just take a player like that out of the lineup.
But there is more to the story than just Khudobin's hot hand. Ward simply hasn't been the Cam Ward we all think of in goal for some time now. Injuries have taken away significant chunks of the last two seasons, but even when Ward himself has been healthy his numbers haven't been all that healthy.
In his 19 games this season, Ward has allowed 3.15 goals per game, with a save percentage of .895. Those are his worst numbers in those two fundamental stats since his rookie season of 2005-06. Yes, Ward did win the Conn Smythe that year in leading the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup - but much of his regular season shaky, as he averaged 3.68 goals allowed with a save percentage of .882.
Moreover, Ward's numbers have been declining for several seasons now. From 2010-11 through this season, Ward' s Goals Against Average and Save Percentage have dropped each year. Ward was an iron man in 2010-11, playing in 74 games, but his GAA has been growing ever since - from 2.56 that season to 2.74 the following year, then 2.84 last year and 3.15 this season. It should go without saying that Ward's save percentage has declined at a corresponding rate - from .923 to .915 to .908 to this season's .895.
Still, there's no reason to think Ward will be Wally Pipp to Khudobin's Lou Gehrig - or, if you prefer a more modern version, Drew Bledsoe to Khudobin's Tom Brady. Khudobin's stats are much better than Ward's this season - 2.15 GAA and .927 SV % - but the sample size is ridiculously small. Over parts of five seasons, Khudobin has played in a grand total of 39 NHL games. Compare that to Ward's 450. Ward could potentially regain his old form - especially if he stays injury free for a sustained period of time - and we have no historical basis for Khudobin's play continuing at this level, improving or declining for that matter. The sample size of 39 games is way too small to make a judgment.
This leads to a series of tricky decisions for Hurricanes management. Khudobin is playing too well to come off the ice, but Ward is making "franchise goalie" money with a salary of $6.3 million. The situation is further complicated by Khudobin's pending free agency. He'll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, meaning he'll be in position for a big pay raise from his current $800K salary, and the Canes will likely not be in position to pay two big money goalies.
In an ideal world, Carolina would be able to trade one of these players. Ward is an established star with a great resume, and there has been some speculation suggesting the Canes would at least listen to inquiries. But his huge salary and declining production may render Ward essentially immovable - plus, there's the risk of alienating a fan base which has come to see Ward as a fan favorites.
As for moving Khudobin, he's the guy that has brought the Canes back into playoff contention. Trading him now might put the team's postseason chances at risk. Plus, there's the issue of equal value - Khudobin's small sample size makes his value hard to calculate, and his low salary means the Canes (who are close to the salary cap limit) would have to take a small-salaried player in return.
The logical odd-man-out would be the third goalie in this situation, Justin Peters. Ironically, Peters has logged the most minutes of the three, and his stats top those of Ward's, but his trade value is also likely the lowest of the three - and the Canes don't want to waive him any more than they want to carry three goalies.
The most immediate decision will be whether to play Khudobin in each of the two remaining games before the Olympic break, or give Ward a start in one of the games. For now, the Hurricanes are non-committal on that. Following the Sochi games, the early March trade deadline may warrant a deal involving one of the three goalies, but any such deal would be tricky for reasons outlined above.
Regardless, how the Canes handle their goaltending moves in the coming weeks may well determine the fate of their season - as well as shape the team's direction for the next several years.
Those will be big decisions indeed.