RALEIGH, N.C. — Cam Ward may be more than halfway to his 31st birthday, but make no mistake about it, the baby-faced goaltender still looks as young as he feels.
"I’m only 30 years old. I still got ID’ed this summer. In Canada. And the legal (drinking) age in Canada is 18," Ward said, grinning. "That’s got to be telling you something. I judge the way my body feels when I’m waking up, and I feel like I’m as fresh as I’ve ever been. That’s got to translate over to the ice."
It seems bound to happen at some point for Ward, who seemingly peaked in the 2006 playoffs during Carolina’s Stanley Cup run, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy. He and Jonathan Quick are the only active goalies in the NHL that have won that award, as new head coach Bill Peters pointed out during a Fan Town Hall on Wednesday, the eve of the team’s media day.
Goalie Anton Khudobin earned a two-year deal last year as he took over the starting job for Ward, even when Ward was healthy at times last year. And it doesn’t seem likely that the two will continue to alternate this year, at least not as much as they did last season.
"We need a stud," Peters said.
Peters, general manager Ron Francis and even Ward himself all believe that he can be that stud.
"Obviously, I want to be that guy," Ward said. "I think (Khudobin) is a great goaltender and I think we’re going to be able to push one another. But we’re both competitive guys. I want to be in the net showcasing what I can do. I feel like I’m going to get that opportunity and I want to make sure that I take care of that opportunity."
Ward couldn’t help but go back to that time when he was a young goalie in 2006 when Carolina’s starter got hurt and he was called upon to start Game 3 of the opening-round series at Montreal.
In a way, he feels like he’s right back there again.
"I got thrown into the game and I started Game 3 in Montreal in the first round. I was thinking, ‘How sweet is this?’ I wanted to take advantage of that," Ward said. "I almost feel like I’m back in that position, to be honest with you."
One thing Ward could always count on in the past is that the organization would be there for him. Former general manager Jim Rutherford had a lot of faith in Ward, and he was seemingly untouchable. But Francis, the new man in charge, was frank with Ward in the offseason: the Hurricanes were willing to move him if they could.
"I’ve been fortunate to have the stability. This is the first offseason where I didn’t, I wasn’t sure. To be honest with you, at the start of the summer, I didn’t think I was coming back," Ward said. "I respect Ron for being honest with me all summer long and telling me how it is. It was going in a direction that I wasn’t going to be here.
"I got a phone call from Ron later in the summer that I was going to come back, and I got excited. Obviously, we love Raleigh. I love the organization. I want to continue my career here."
Ward has had a tough few years, and that might be an understatement. A fan favorite for a time, he’s become a source of exasperation because of his hefty contract not matching his on-ice results.
In the fall of 2009, he was signed to a six-year, $37 million extension which ends next season. That season, he was cut on the leg by a skate and played in just 47 games, and struggled in the games when he was healthy, going 18-23-5 as a starter, his first season under .500.
That seemed to be a blip as his save percentage stayed above .910 in 2010-11 and 2011-12, an he played almost a full season both years. His record those two seasons was a combined 67-49-23.
And then the last two years happened.
He didn’t even play in the fall of the 2012-13 season, and he saw action for about two months before going out with a knee injury. He was hampered by a number of injuries last season, and he’s played a total of 47 games in the last two years, going 19-18-7, including a 10-12-6 last year with a 3.06 goals-against average, his worst since 2005-06.
He’ll earn $6.7 million this season. Only two players on the roster earn more: forwards Eric Staal and Alexander Semin.
And unfortunately for Ward, all this has coincided with the team as a whole being mediocre and missing the playoffs for five straight seasons.
"All I can do is speak on behalf of myself, and I know I’ve been inconsistent. Inconsistency at the goaltending position is something that you can’t afford. These last couple years, just dealing with other things, dealing with injuries, other excuses, but excuses are for losers," Ward said. "Those don’t do you any favors. I’ve got to get back to being … that stud, being a guy that guys have confidence in when I’m in the net that I’ve got their backs."
The confidence is what’s been missing for Ward the last few years. The injuries have made him not trust his body, and his on-ice results made him not trust his skill for a time, too.
He didn’t see a sports psychologist or anything, but he said he spent this offseason with his family and at his church, immersing himself in his faith.
"It’s a very difficult position to play when you don’t have confidence, and I have battled that the last couple of years. A lot of that has to do with the injuries that I’ve had. I think because of the injuries … I played out of fear that I was going to get hurt again," Ward said. "But this summer was great to know that I’ve done everything I can to prepare my body, my mind, to play with confidence. I’ve got to trust in myself that my body’s going to take care of itself."
With a $6.3 million salary cap hit and no-trade clause in his contract, he’s difficult to move. So for better or worse, the Hurricanes are putting their trust in Ward and he’s going to do all he can to return the favor.
"I’ve been here, this is my 10th year here. Time flies. It sure does. You don’t want to take it for granted. This was the first summer where you kind of sit back and you wondered how many years you have left," Ward said. "I feel like I have a lot more years to give, but also the opportunities are becoming more and more limited. So I want to take advantage of them. I think starting camp, it’s going to be a competitive camp…but my focus needs to be on me and what I have to do.
"Anton’s a great goaltender. He’s going to be a great goaltender. I’ve got to do my thing."