It may seem a contradiction, but Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward had an uneasy, productive summer.
For Ward, the uneasiness came in persistent speculation he might be traded. Asked this week if he believed he might have played his last game for the Canes, Ward said, “I think I’d be lying if I said no. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The trade rumors spiked around the NHL draft and then the start of free agency, but there was no move. The tension subsided, Ward said, when general manager Ron Francis called to say Ward and Anton Khudobin would be the Canes’ two goaltenders this season.
“It was an important summer in my career,” Ward said. “These last couple of years haven’t gone the way I expected of myself. I feel like that’s behind me and you move forward. I’ve done everything I can to prepare myself to play with confidence.”
Ward, 30, said he intensified his physical conditioning, looking to add more muscle. He changed his diet, looking to improve his nutrition.
“Every summer you learn new things,” he said. “For me, I became addicted to watching what I eat and looking for ways to improve my weight training. I focused a little more on strength and growing the muscles and I feel a lot stronger physically.”
Ward looks it. Pete Friesen, the Canes’ head trainer, called Ward’s conditioning “fantastic” – a word not used trivially by Friesen.
It’s likely Ward’s hefty contract and goaltending numbers last season, plus a no-trade clause, made him tough for the Canes to move. He has two years left on the contract, with a $6.3 million salary cap hit, and is also coming off a season in which he twice was sidelined with a groin injury, was unseated by Khudobin as the Canes’ No. 1 goalie and finished with a 3.06 goals-against average and .898 save percentage – his worst GAA since his rookie season.
Remember that rookie year? Ward backed up Martin Gerber in 2005-2006, posting a 3.68 GAA and .882 save percentage in 28 games. Then came the playoffs, when the Canes surged to the Stanley Cup and Ward was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the MVP of the playoffs.
Ward became entrenched as the Canes’ top goalie after the Cup run and considered among the NHL’s elite, but has had injuries derail him at times.
“He has had some bizarre, weird injuries,” Francis said Tuesday. “Bad things have happened to him.”
Back issues, a slashed leg, a serious knee injury, the groin problems Ward has had to fight through a lot.
“We still believe he can be an elite goalie in this league,” Francis said. “By the same token, Cam understands what he needs to do to get back to that level. He could have done one of two things in the offseason – either sit back and relax, or work twice as hard toward having a better year. From what I have heard, he chose to work hard.”
Ward said he has talked three or four times with new Canes coach Bill Peters. While in Calgary during the summer, he also had a chance to go on the ice three times with new goaltending coach David Marcoux, whom Ward first worked with during the 2004-2005 season – a lockout year in the NHL – while playing at Lowell in the American Hockey League.
“I think really highly of him and respect what he knows about the position and the way he can translate it to me,” Ward said of Marcoux.
Ward has regrets about last season. The Canes failed to reach the playoffs for the fifth straight year, ultimately costing Kirk Muller his job as coach. Posed with a question about Muller during his end-of-season media session in April, Ward hesitated and then did not answer – a no-comment that was interpreted by many as a condemnation of Muller, who has been hired as a St. Louis Blues assistant coach.
“I kind of got put into an awkward position,” Ward said. “I respect Kirk for the efforts he put forth into our team. Obviously with him and I, things didn’t work out as well as it could have. I felt I wanted to defend myself and it was just a very awkward position to be in.
“By no means did I mean to make anybody look or sound bad. I wish Kirk the best in St. Louis.”
But Ward’s focus is fully on the Canes. He believes he and Khudobin – fourth in the NHL last season in save percentage (.926) – can give the Canes a winning combination, regardless of who’s the No. 1 guy.
“I think he’s an excellent goaltender who played very well last year,” Ward said. “At the same time I’m a competitive guy, too, and I want my opportunity to get in the net, too. In my eyes, as long as we’re both winning it’s a great recipe. If we’re both winning I’d like to think we’ll be in the playoffs.”