Luke DeCock

Carolina Hurricanes’ goalie battle just getting started

Cam Ward glad to be back on the ice

Veteran Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward discusses the first on-ice sessions of training camp.
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Veteran Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward discusses the first on-ice sessions of training camp.

Eddie Lack was perfect in his preseason debut, playing two unblemished periods against the Washington Capitals on Monday. Cam Ward gave up six goals in a period and a half in his preseason debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, but it’s unfair to draw any conclusions from either start.

That first preseason appearance is always a freebie for a goalie, often playing behind a patchwork defense of veterans still shaking off the rust and kids who will get no closer to the NHL. You can look good, as Lack did, but you can’t really look bad. Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters certainly wasn’t making any conclusions of significance.

“We’ll leave that until closer to the end,” Peters said. “Too many Grade A chances in both games and a lot of breakdowns we’re not typically going to make. I thought Eddie was good in Washington, very athletic on the penalty kill. Wardo we just left hung out to dry, unfortunately.”

While this weekend’s neutral-site games in Canada against the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators should offer a slightly better venue for assessment, this is merely the beginning of a head-to-head comparison between Lack and Ward that figures to last until the trade deadline, at which point the Hurricanes will have to make a decision, not just for this season but into the future.

Both goalies are in the final year of their contracts, and both can become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. That makes this season essentially a referendum on the position among Peters and the front office, although General Manager Ron Francis holds the deciding vote.

The Canes could, conceivably, keep both, especially if they’re in postseason contention, but it seems likely one goalie will claim the position and the other will bring a considerable ransom at the trade deadline from a goalie-deficient contender, presumably in the Western Conference if the Hurricanes are still in the playoff hunt.

So the assessment of the two begins now, with those freebie preseason openers out of the way, with Ward the established starter and Lack the incoming would-be usurper.

It’s really only the second legitimate competition of Ward’s career, the first against Anton Khudobin having been won essentially by default. Both struggled with injuries in 2013-14, and Ward was clearly the better goalie last season, although still with considerable room for improvement. Beyond that, this has the potential to be the most open competition in goal for the Hurricanes since Kevin Weekes and Arturs Irbe batted the job back and forth in the early 2000s.

At 31, Ward remains a relative pup by goalie standards, so there should be plenty left in the tank. It’s possible the combination of the financial imperative created by playing out his contract and the competitive imperative created by Lack’s presence could provoke Ward to some of the best hockey of his career, as long as he stays healthy.

Lack, meanwhile, has the same financial imperative and a chance to prove he can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL after splitting time with Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo with the Vancouver Canucks. Only 27, he’s the interloper here, but he’ll be given every chance to win the job in a way John Grahame, Michael Leighton, Manny Legace, Justin Peters, Brian Boucher and Dan Ellis were not, and, for the most part, could not.

In the old days of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, NHL teams would find a No. 1 goalie and lock him down for years, as the Hurricanes did with Ward. In the modern NHL, teams have had just as much success plucking backups from other teams and giving them a chance to play, as the Hurricanes did with Martin Gerber for one glorious (regular) season.

Either way, there’s only likely to be one standing at the end of the season: either a rejuvenated Ward or a complete changing of the guard at the position for the first time in a decade with Lack taking over in net.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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