When Jim Rutherford was hired earlier this month as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, following a 20-year stint in the same position with the Hurricanes/Whalers, he was asked why he thought his former franchise had not earned a playoff berth since 2009.
His answer: mostly injuries at the goaltender position.
In inheriting the roster, new general manager Ron Francis also inherits this franchise-defining question: What to do about goaltender Cam Ward?
Having hired Bill Peters as coach last week, Francis now faces his second major test as one of the NHL’s busier times of the season in terms of player movement is set to begin. The draft, often a time for major trades, begins on Friday and the free agency period starts a week from Tuesday.
While Francis will have to make decisions about a number of free agents and negotiate contracts with others — particularly unrestricted free agents like injured defenseman Joni Pitkanen, forward Manny Malhotra and goalie Justin Peters and restricted free-agent forwards like Jiri Tlusty and Nathan Gerbe — what to do about Ward could dominate Francis’ agenda.
The goalie who led the franchise to its only Stanley Cup in 2006, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, has two more seasons left on a contract that pays him $6.3 million per season. However, he in all likelihood enters as the backup and with a troubling recent injury history. Ward has played only 47 games over the past two seasons, 27 less than the number he played in 2010-11, when he led the NHL in that category and tied for third in wins.
Anton Khudobin, who also battled injuries last season but, at 28, is younger than the 30-year-old Ward and has far less mileage on him, ranked eighth in the NHL in save percentage (.926) last season among those who played more than 10 games. Meanwhile, Ward, at .898 in 30 games, finished 73rd among 97 goalies in that category last season.
Francis’ task is complicated by the fact that the free-agent goalie market is filled with a number of quality players. Ryan Miller, most recently of St. Louis, headlines the group. Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller is another player capable of steering a team into the playoffs as a No. 1. Two older goalies have four Stanley Cups between them — Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas — and are likely to be far cheaper than Ward. Younger goalies like Boston’s Chad Johnson, Arizona’s Thomas Greiss and even Ray Emery are also available, potentially diminishing the market for Ward.
In most scenarios, Francis will have to end up paying some of Ward’s salary in any trade, a step that Rutherford was forced to take last season when he moved Tuomo Ruutu to New Jersey, eating $950,000 in the process. Owner Peter Karmanos is likely to be understanding in that case, as Ward’s deal did not come on Francis’ watch.
Other complicating factors include Ward’s no-trade clause and his standing with his teammates. On Monday, Philadelphia showed that a player can be persuaded to waive his no-trade clause when the Flyers informed wing Scott Hartnell that he had no future with the club. Hartnell waived his clause and the Flyers sent him to Columbus. Perhaps the ‘Canes can convince Ward to do the same.
Among the team’s leadership, such as captain Eric Staal, Ward is close personally and such moves do not go over easy. But that is the business of the league. The New York Rangers, fresh off reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, were forced last week to buy out center Brad Richards, one of the team’s most respected players.
Francis could always choose to retain Ward, but the goalie might not step so quietly into the role of a backup. It’s also not the ideal way to start the tenure of Peters, who will be a rookie coach in the league. A fresh start for all could be more workable.
In his introductory press conference, Peters cited three factors he wanted to improve. One was the team’s start to games. This often can come down to a goalie making an early, timely save. Goalies with .898 save percentages often come up short in that respect. Peters also said he wants to win at home more and, generally, to be harder to play against. Again, strong goaltending goes a long way in those respects.
Francis told The News & Observer that he needs to make a decision on Ward’s future by the end of the month. For the man who was known as "Ronnie Franchise" as a player, it’s come down to crunch time.