Despite years of criticism and fans waiting for the team to get out from under Cam Ward’s hefty six-year contract with a $6.3 million cap hit, the team may re-sign Ward. At least that was the indication from general manager Ron Francis on Thursday.
“I think we’ll make a decision fairly soon,” Francis told reporters Thursday. The free agent market for goaltenders isn’t always team friendly, with few starters available and the asking price steep. That may force his hand.
“Cam takes a lot of criticism, but Cam from December to the end of the year was one of the top five goaltenders in the league in goals-against and save percentage,” Francis said. “I think there’s some merit to revisiting that as we move forward.”
While Ward did have some decent numbers from December on (a span of just 33 games), his .915 even-strength save percentage over the last three seasons ranks 62nd among goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes in that time.
Meanwhile, Eddie Lack is on contract for the next two seasons with a $2.75 million cap hit. But Francis and coach Bill Peters don’t appear convinced that Lack is ready to be a starter in the NHL.
“When we look at Cam, part of my job is making sure I go through the meetings with my pro [scouting] guys and assessing what’s out there in the free-agent market and then talking to all the other GMs to see which goaltenders may or may not be available and for the ones that are, what the price is,” said Francis.
“As I sit here today, do I want to give up a first-round pick for a goaltender that may have a year or two left on his deal and then we lose him, an older guy? Not really the plan I’m looking for.”
The window in Carolina may be opening up, following a strong season with good possession numbers and the revelation that their defensive group is coming of age. Goaltending will likely be a weakness once again if they’re running out Ward and Lack, but there’s not much out there in terms of free agency. The biggest names are James Reimer, Jhonas Enroth, Alex Stalock and Karri Ramo.
Given that group, Ward might be the best option in terms of what is out there in free agency. If the ‘Canes wait to see if they can work a trade with a team that is worried about the expansion draft, it could take them past the opening of free agency on July 1, given that there’s just about a week between the potential formal announcement of expansion and free agency. If Ward walks on July 1 and a deal doesn’t get done, they’d be in even worse shape. But if they sign him, it essentially blocks them from making a move for another goaltender with two on the books already.
Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.