In the hierarchy of the NHL's starting goaltenders, where does Cam Ward fit? Well, for those who live by the theory of "what have you done for me lately," probably not very high.
But to those who so heavily base their opinion on recent results rather than contributing factors, I pose a query. Can you name more than a few players (other than Ward) from last year's Carolina Hurricanes? It's okay, I'll wait.
Alright, time's up. If you got more than Ward, Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk, congratulations. After taking your blindfold off, and a quick Google search, it doesn't take a genius to realize that Carolina was in shambles in 2011-12. But seven months later, general manager Jim Rutherford may have pieced together a well-balanced roster that might make you reconsider your thoughts on them and their franchise goaltender.
Rutherford's signing of Alexander Semin, the (don't say enigmatic, don't say enigmatic...) perplexing, ex-communicated Capitals winger gives Eric Staal a bonafide scoring threat on the wing, along with pesky Jeff Skinner.
He mortgaged the farm a bit to get Eric's brother Jordan from Pittsburgh, giving up not only the eighth overall pick in last June's draft, but also Brandon Sutter and defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin. In doing so, his message rang loud and clear throughout the Hurricanes organization: the time is now.
Carolina's defensive corps , though anchored by veterans Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison, suffered through it's fair share of growing pains with Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain over the last few seasons. What was undoubtedly the team's Achillies' heel a year ago will only get stronger, which will only make Ward's job easier.
Oh right, and about that Ward fellow. Remember this?
Yeah, he'll make a big save or two if you need it. But in the last few years, it's been rather hard to identify the one or two big stops he's made, since his mates called on him to do so with such alarming frequency. In each of the last two seasons, Carolina has finished dead last in shots allowed per game. In fact, their winning percentage in 2011-12 when being outshot was .348.
Ward desperately needed help in all three zones, and Rutherford went out and got it for him. For all that Jordan Staal may do offensively after finally stepping out of the shadow of two other-worldly talents in Pittsburgh, his play in his own zone may provide the most value to the Canes. He's known most for his penalty-killing prowess, but Staal's ability to adapt to different in-game situations made him such a valuable asset in Pittsburgh.
Everyone knows about the Staals, Skinner and Semin offensively, who are currently accepting applications for a clever nickname starting with the letter S, but players such as Jiri Tlusty and Jussi Jokinen give Carolina legitimate secondary scoring options. Any successful team needs forward depth as much as clutch goaltending, and Rutherford has stayed cognizant of that. Zac Dalpe and Victor Rask, currently playing at AHL Charlotte, may provide a shot in the arm if given the chance later on this season.
Personnel aside, scheduling could play a significant role in their success as well. In a weak Southeast Division, the Hurricanes could do damage in a shortened schedule. They'll see the Capitals, Lightning, Panthers and Jets 18 times. Do any of those teams seem all that daunting to you? Me neither. Expect them to not only contend for their division crown, but to win it.
Who knows, come June we may be talking about a new team in the Stanley Cup discussion. We may even have a new candidate in the Vezina Trophy race.
Maybe then you'll rethink your hierarchy. Maybe then mine will be vindicated.
(Photo via Aery's Sports)