The play was innocent-looking enough. Florida Panthers forward Jack Skille broke down the wing and drove hard to the net, forcing Justin Faulk to retreat and ultimately collide with teammate Cam Ward, pinning his knee against the goalpost. Though he wouldn’t realize it until the next shift, his season had ended that night in Sunrise.
And so did the Carolina Hurricanes’. If this was how a Ward-less team fared, what does the future hold?
Ward isn’t going to be around forever. Though he’s only 29, he’s an “old” 29—routinely among the league leaders in both games played and shots per game—and now coming off a Grade III sprain of his MCL. Though there is little concern that Ward will return to form next year, how many years can he reasonably be expected to play at a high level?
It is not uncommon for goaltenders’ play to drop off suddenly and significantly—look no further than the Vancouver Canucks’ Roberto Luongo who went from gold medal starter to unwanted trade bait in a little over two years. Luongo, like Ward, has faced an exceptional amount of shots throughout his career. And like Ward, he’s been his team’s go-to guy almost every night, once completing a four-year stretch of playing at least 73 games in a season.
Luckily for the Canucks, they were prepared for Luongo’s decline. Cory Schneider was taken near the end of the first round, 26th overall in 2004—almost two years before Luongo was even acquired. When Luongo has struggled, Schneider has stepped in almost seamlessly.
It’s never too early to begin thinking about your next franchise goaltender, and it’s something the Hurricanes need to consider at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Prior to any trading, they will be picking 5th, 35th and 66th overall in the first three rounds. While surprises can certainly happen, no goaltender is projected to go anywhere near the top 10 and perhaps not even the first round.
Should there be a run of skaters, some talented net-minders could fall to the top of the second.
Zach Fucale, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
If a replacement for Ward is what the Hurricanes are going for, Zach Fucale would be an excellent choice. His butterfly style is similar to Ward’s and the two are nearly the same size already. Fucale has seen his numbers improve at every level of hockey, something Ward had also accomplished right up to his NHL debut.
While it’s true that Fucale plays on the same team as top-five picks Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin with the Halifax Mooseheads, he’s certainly not looked out of place in guiding his team to both President’s Cup and Memorial Cup victories, the latter of which saw him stop 40 shots in the championship game. He was also named as a 2012-13 first team All-Star.
A starter since he was 16, Fucale has already broken the team record for wins set by Jean-Sebastien Giguere. And he has two years of junior eligibility remaining and the ability to make that total unreachable. As one of the younger members of the draft class, the Canes would have little reason to rush him.
Eric Comrie, Tri-City Americans (WHL)
Eric Comrie might be right there with Fucale in the conversation about best goaltending prospects had he not suffered a season-ending injury in January. Before getting hurt he had amassed a 39-20-5 record over parts of two years for Tri-City, culminating in a .915 save percentage and 2.62 GAA season last year.
Comrie is athletic but aggressive, often relying on that athleticism to recover on dekes, though he is rarely caught out of position. But at only around 170 lbs, he will have to put on some weight without compromising his ability. Like many goalies his age, he also suffers from a very fixable rebound problem.
Should the Canes determine that Comrie is their guy, he may be available as late as the third round. Injury concerns aside, selecting him at 66 would be tremendous value and low risk for the potential star.
Tristan Jarry, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
There might be no more intriguing goaltender prospect than the Oil Kings’ Tristan Jarry. Though he has not yet grabbed the starting position from one of the best in the WHL, Laurent Brossoit, his numbers are remarkable. In 27 games he’s posted a 1.36 GAA and .936 save percentage and has shut out the opposition 6 times. By comparison, Brossoit averaged nearly a goal against higher to go along with his .917 save percentage.
It is a small sample size for Jarry to be sure, but quite impressive nonetheless.
Jarry is another of the butterfly mold with an excellent glove. More importantly, perhaps, is his ability to play the puck as a third defender. While Ward is not an adventure every time he touches it, he’s not Martin Brodeur either. For a team like Carolina that has a consistently weak outlet, any help has to be appreciated.
It’s tough to predict where Jarry will go given the fact that he has so few games played. Some team could fall in love with his potential and take him early or teams could shy away, opting for the surer thing. When considering a Ward successor, Jarry might be worth the gamble.
At one point, the Hurricanes seemed stocked with goaltender prospects. Mike Murphy hadn’t given up an NHL goal in two appearances, Frederik Andersen was looking like a diamond in the rough and Justin Peters was about to solidify his spot in Carolina. Even John Muse looked to be a good find from the ECHL. Through various means, none of them have panned out as expected.
It’s time to restock the organizational cupboard. Though the team took Daniel Altshuller in the third round last year, you can never have too many goaltenders. Given that many teams simply do not have a need for drafting one early, 2013 presents an opportunity to get one of the year’s best.
Photo credit: David Chan, WHL.ca, Shoot the Breeze Photography