RALEIGH Cam Ward won’t become a free agent on July 1 and won’t be leaving the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Canes announced Thursday that Ward, 32, had been signed to a two-year contract extension. The deal will pay the veteran goalie $3.5 million in the 2016-17 season, and $3.1 million in 2017-18.
“We looked at a lot of different options but at the end of the day, getting Cam at the term and the price we did was the right decision for us,” general manager Ron Francis said Thursday. “Cam wanted to be here, for all the right reasons. He’s comfortable here, he likes the direction we’re going, likes the moves we’ve made and he felt strongly we’re going to start winning again.”
Francis called Ward a “major face” of the franchise in the past decade, on the ice and in the community. Drafted by Carolina in the first round in the 2002 NHL Draft, he has played 564 games for the franchise, winning 269 games.
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With the trade of former captain Eric Staal in February, Ward became the last remaining member of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup champions still playing for the team. A rookie in 2006, he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP.
Ward helped the Canes reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2009. In September 2009, he signed a six-year contract extension worth $37.8 million — a salary-cap hit of $6.3 million a year — and become of the league’s best-paid goaltenders.
The Canes have not reached the playoffs the past seven seasons and Francis has been reshaping the team, bringing in Bill Peters as head coach two years ago and making such personnel moves as trading for goalie Eddie Lack last year.
“At the end of the season I said this is where I wanted to be,” Ward said Thursday. “I’m thankful that Ron and the organization believes in me and is bringing me back for two years.
“To be honest, I remained hopeful and optimistic that this would happen. But you’ve also got to be mindful that if it did not work out, I’ve got to look elsewhere. I’m excited. This is an exciting time to be a part of the Hurricanes.”
After a slow start that mirrored the team’s, Ward finished the 2015-16 season with a 23-17-10 record, a 2.41 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 52 games played. His 2.41 goals-against average was his second-best single-season mark of his career, and his wins and games played totals were his best since 2011-12.
Ward missed time because of injury in December, but returned on Dec. 18 and posted a 2.19 goals-against average — seventh-best in the NHL — and a 14-9-7 record, with a .919 save percentage, in 30 games played.
“I was really pleased with my second half of the year but know I need a better start next season,” Ward said. “That’s what I’m focusing on coming up to next season.
“I find I play my best when I’m not thinking at all, just playing. To put this behind me should make it easier. Not that I want to feel comfortable. I’ve got to do everything I can to prepare and give the Hurricanes my best.”
Ward is the Carolina franchise’s all-time leader in wins (269), shutouts (23) and games played by a goaltender (564). He ranks sixth among active NHL goaltenders and 43rd in league history in wins, and is fifth among active goaltenders in games played.
Ward said he likes the makeup of the team, noting the solid play of rookie defensemen Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce in front of him last season. He praised Francis for the trade Wednesday with Chicago that brought forwards Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell to the Canes.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Ward said. “It’s should be exciting moving forward. It’s great to know Ron and the organization believe in me and wanted me to be a part of it moving forward.”