Cam Ward has long been known as “Wardo” with the Hurricanes. That’s his moniker.
And Anton Khudobin?
“Maybe it’s because I’m Russian,” he said, smiling, “but I’m always being called ‘Dobi’ or ‘Dubi,’ or sometimes ‘Dobs.’ Sometimes just ‘Anton.’ There are so many ways. I’m OK with that.”
But both Ward and Khudobin want to be called something else: the Canes’ No. 1 goaltender.
Ward and Khudobin came into training camp with a new head coach, Bill Peters, to convince and the position to be won. It was equal opportunity, a may-the-best-man-win kind of competition.
No animosity, either. The two, different in nationality and temperament, always seem to be exchanging a laugh.
“We generally care about each other and obviously want to push one another,” Ward said. “We’re both competitive people and realize there’s only one goalie who can be out there each game.”
Since the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, when the Canes won the Cup and Ward was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP, it is “Wardo” who usually has been the man out there in net. There have been several backups – John Grahame, Michael Leighton, Manny Legace, Justin Peters – but “Wardo” was the No. 1 guy.
That all changed last season. Khudobin signed a free-agent contract and was brought in to back up Ward, only to emerge as the Canes’ most efficient goalie by year’s end.
Khudobin and Ward both went out with injuries – Khudobin an ankle sprain, Ward a groin problem – early in the season and Khudobin thrived when healthy and given the chance to be the starter. Named the NHL’s first star of the month in January, he had a 19-14-1 record and 2.30 goals-against average, finished fifth in the NHL and set a franchise record in save percentage (.926), and was signed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract extension.
But all that was last season. The firing of Kirk Muller as coach and the hiring of Peters, along with new goalie coach David Marcoux, changed the dynamic.
Marcoux had worked with Ward in the AHL during the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout season. He also had on-ice sessions with Ward this past summer.
But Marcoux likes what he has seen of both goalies – Ward, the more reserved Canadian, and Khudobin, the ebullient Russian.
“I see it as two goaltenders who want to be part of the solution here,” Marcoux said. “I appreciate their work and their positive attitudes, and both goalies are supportive of each other.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We’re not changing the goalie styles. They do play a different game but it’s more about how to maximize it. Both have things they can bring to the table in terms of experience, in terms of enthusiasm.”
To Marcoux, enthusiasm counts. A favorite phrase is “Attitude dictates altitude” and tries to keep things upbeat.
Marcoux, who helped Miikka Kiprusoff win a Vezina Trophy with the Calgary Flames, has worked with both goalies in camp on better rebound control, saying he will “harp on it” a lot. He said he wants Ward and Khudobin to have a “strong stick” and likes to see a lot of practice video, noting, “To me an image is worth a thousand words.”
All that helps in instruction and preparation, but as Marcoux said, “Ultimately they’re the ones in the kitchen.”
It would be easy to say Ward, 30, will be facing the most heat. He’s coming off arguably his worst season and was central in a lot of offseason trade speculation. He also will be paid $6.7 million this season (Khudobin $2 million).
“Personally, I’m trying to take it one day at a time,” Ward said. “I’m not going to worry about tomorrow and just take care of the present day and see what happens from there.”
Peters said from the start of camp ideally he’d like one goalie to clearly win the No. 1 spot and possibly start about 60 games.
“I think they both came in wanting to be the No. 1 guy and they’ve both pushed each other,” Peters said.
Ward had the better outings in preseason, but the Canes’ chances of getting back to the playoffs might rest on how well Ward and Khudobin continue to push and perform.
“I don’t think goaltending is an issue,” said NBC hockey analyst Eddie Olczyk. “Khudobin is a very good goaltender. But the key to me is Cam Ward.”
General manager Ron Francis said the Canes can make it work, whether “Wardo” or “Dobs” is in net.
“You look back at the years we didn’t get in the playoffs by two points, four points, we got very little from our backup goaltender,” Francis said. “If we gets points from our backup goaltender and our No. 2 is as good as our No. 1, that will help us in the long run.”