RALEIGH — Cam Ward has had so much come his way at such a young age.
The Carolina Hurricanes goaltender won the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2006, claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He helped the Canes reach the Eastern Conference finals last season -- outplaying the likes of Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas along the way -- and may well be on Team Canada when the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are held.
"It's come awfully fast and I realize how very fortunate I am," Ward said.
As of Wednesday, Ward also is very financially secure. He signed a new six-year contract with the Hurricanes that will pay him an average of $6.3 million through the 2015-16 season -- a total of $37.8 million -- and makes him among the best-paid goalies in the NHL.
But Ward, 25, also is aware that with a rich new contract comes a brighter glare and heightened expectations.
"I realize I'm being paid to be an elite goaltender," he said. "I realize there's added pressure that always comes with something like this, but it's good pressure.
"I do not want to shy away from it. If anything, I want to rise to the occasion. I still have another level I can reach."
Ward rose to the occasion last season as the Canes reached the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2006. He set a franchise record for wins in a season (39) and matched the record for shutouts (6). He had career bests in goals-against average (2.44) and save percentage (.916), started a career-high 28 straight games late in the regular season and was named the NHL's First Star for the month of March with his 10-1-2 record.
In the playoffs, the Hurricanes topped the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, each in tense seven-game series. Ward first outdueled the Devils' Brodeur, a future Hall of Famer, and then Thomas, who won the Vezina Trophy last year as the NHL's top goaltender.
Ward was slowed by back spasms as the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, but that didn't tarnish all that he did during the season.
"There's no other goaltender in hockey I'd rather have," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday of the Canes' first-round draft pick in 2002.
Ward credited working with goaltending coach Tom Barrasso, recently selected for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, with helping him become more focused and more sound in net. The Canes also became a stingier defensive team in front of Ward last season under coach Paul Maurice.
Ward is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $3.5 million this season. He was due to be a restricted free agent, but said he was pleased to have a new deal finalized two days before the regular season opens against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"Come Friday, my focus is on hockey and nothing but," he said. "I'm glad it's behind me now. I'm not going to get complacent. I want to get better and better and be one of those elite goaltenders in the NHL."
Ward will earn $5 million in the 2010-11 season. His salary will jump to $6.3 million the next season, then slowly escalate each year to a high of $6.8 million in the 2015-16 season.
Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks will earn $7.5 million this season, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers $6.875 million and Ryan Miller of Buffalo $6.25 million. Ward soon will be in elite company.
Rutherford, a former NHL goaltender whose top salary was $175,000 in the 1983 season, now has center Eric Staal and Ward signed to long-term contracts. Staal was given a seven-year extension before last season that will pay him almost $58 million.
"We now have the cornerstones of our team wrapped up for several years," Rutherford said. "Regardless of good times or bad times, we can always build around Cam and Eric."
Ward took good-natured ribbing from some of his teammates in the locker room after Wednesday's practice at the RBC Center, but no one denied his value to the team and organization.
"Everyone in here believes in him," forward Erik Cole said. "He's earned it."
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