Since the unrestricted free agency rush of July 1st subsided, just two NHL goaltenders have been signed off the open market: Anthony Stolarz with the Anaheim Ducks and Jared Coreau with the New York Islanders. That’s two goalie signings in 33 days, making it easily the quietest position of this off-season, despite a major re-shuffling of UFA starters early on and several RFA extensions as well.
Unsurprisingly, several notable names remain available – Scott Darling, Chad Johnson, Mike McKenna, Al Montoya – while Michal Neuvirth has already accepted a PTO. However, one name sticks out above the rest for both his career accomplishments and his meaningful role in 2018-19.
Cam Ward, 35, ventured outside of Carolina last season for the first time in his 14-year NHL career. Ward signed a one-year, $3MM contract with the Chicago Blackhawks last summer and proceeded to play a major tole for the team this past season. Dealing with ongoing issues with starter Corey Crawford, Ward ended up playing in 33 games to Crawford’s 39 and Collin Delia’s 16. Although Ward’s .897 save percentage and 3.67 GAA were the worst among the trio, it was only a marginal gap. The Blackhawks struggled defensively and no goalie was safe, as all three finished with a save percentage below .910 and GAA above 2.90.
Still, Ward cannot have been happy with his results last year. A Stanley Cup winner and former All-Star, Ward was rock solid for the Hurricanes for several years. He thrived early on as a workhorse, including a 2010-11 campaign in which he posted a career-high .923 save percentage in a league-best 74 appearances. He then settled nicely into a timeshare role, posting back-to-back seasons with a 2.40 GAA while playing in around 50 games each year from 2014 to 2016. Even as he continued to age and his numbers slipped slightly, no one could have predicted his pedestrian performance last season. It was a sharp decline from his career numbers that could have been an outlier or could be signaling the end of his career.
One thing that is certainly working against Ward finding work this off-season is the now well-established narrative that he does not play well as a backup. Over his career, Ward has played in four seasons, including last year in Chicago, in which he did not make at least half of his team’s starts. In those three seasons combined, Ward is 49-38-13, with a a save percentage of .895 and a GAA of 3.37. In all of his other seasons combined, Ward has a record of 285-218-75, with a save percentage of .911 and a GAA of 2.63. It is extremely clear that Ward does his best work with regular appearances and any team looking to make the most of signing him will want to offer that opportunity. But does such a landing spot exist?
The honest answer is that the team likely to sign Ward, if any, isn’t aware of the need just yet. Ward could very well be a veteran option that a team turns to in case of injury or poor performance that can be a temporary starter. While it’s impossible to project injuries, the New York Rangers have a starter who is even older than Ward and have very little depth behind him. A Henrik Lundqvist injury could certainly turn the Blueshirts on to Ward as an option to step in at starter during a season that brings high expectations to New York. The same could be said for the Vegas Golden Knights, whose 34-year-old starter Marc-Andre Fleury has dealt with injury issues before. Vegas is in better shape with their depth in net and could handle a short absence from Fleury, but without a proven NHL goalie elsewhere on the depth chart, a long-term injury could send them on the hunt for a solution. Despite having both John Gibson and Ryan Miller, the Anaheim Ducks are far from safe when it comes to injury risk and could be an option for Ward if disaster strikes. The Philadelphia Flyers shuffled through goalies like no other team in NHL history last year, so another issue with Brian Elliott could easily have the Flyers intrigued in Ward.
As for teams who risk needing a starter due to poor play, no team jumps out more than the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s perhaps even fair to call them the most likely landing spot for Ward, as they are sure to go through some bumpy times with their young tandem of former backup Joonas Korpisalo and unproven import Elvis Merzlikins. The team only has more untested foreign talent in the minors as well. The Blue Jackets have ample cap space, so if there was a bidding war for Ward at any point, Columbus would be the favorite to beat out any other team in need of an emergency starter.
If Ward is intent on signing before the season begins though, rather than wait for a need-based market to develop in-season, there are a couple of teams who could still be looking for a backup. Again, that isn’t the ideal role for Ward, but it is one that the respected veteran would likely be willing to try his hand at again. The Florida Panthers spent big on Sergei Bobrovsky this summer, but 22-year-old Samuel Montembeault is slated to be the primary backup heading into next year. He is waiver-exempt still and could head to the AHL without issue if the team opted to look at a veteran backup. However, this doesn’t seem extremely likely, considering their investment in Bobrovsky, who they likely expect to make 65 starts. In Colorado, the Avalanche seemed hesitant to give last year’s third-string, Pavel Francouz, an extended look despite strong numbers in the NHL and AHL. He is now the likely backup to Philipp Grubauer, who himself is still finding his footing as a true starter. The Avs have almost no depth in net and could look to add another name to the mix in Ward.
Ward has made at least $3MM in each of the past four seasons and more than $6MM on the contract prior to that. Those days are now over. Regardless of the impact that his role or the team’s defense had on his 2018-19 performance in Chicago, Ward has lost his leverage to command a sizable salary after such a poor season. If he is settling in to a backup role before the season, he will almost certainly land somewhere between $1MM and the league minimum of $700K. If he is signing mid-season to take over as a starter or at least in a timeshare, that number could go up, but not much higher. If Ward feels like he has several years left, he will be looking at this season as an investment in future earnings; he will accept a cheap deal to go to the right place where there is the potential to succeed, so as to hit the market next summer with some more bargaining power. The only question is whether that right fit exists, now or down the road after the season begins. Ward could call it a career if no such opportunities arise by the end of the calendar year.