Hurricanes goaltending development starts with veterans leading by example

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RALEIGH, N.C. – If you hadn’t noticed, Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward has had a pretty good month of November so far.

The Hurricanes current three-game win streak, extended by a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, had Ward’s pad indentations all over it.

A 1-0 win over San Jose on Tuesday, his first shutout of the season, had Carolina’s longest tenured player noting that it came following his team’s best two games of the season.

The win over the Habs extended that winning play to which he contributed.

Ward has allowed just 12 goals in seven games played this month, and has earned a 4-1-2 mark by posting a 1.62 goal-against average (GAA), and .941 save percentage.

All that has helped stabilize his numbers – a 2.47 GAA, .912 save percentage, and 5-4-3 record overall.

Any forensic mathematician, who may not have watched any of Carolina’s games in October, can figure out that Ward didn’t start the season well.

Before his backstopping prowess coincided with Carolina’s ability to claim more wins than losses, the 32-year old Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy winner struggled to allow less than three goals per game in his first five games, doing so only twice, to be exact.

Though a goalkeeper shouldn’t be alone in defending the puck, many times during Carolina’s early stretch when established leads were blown, he eventually was.

Ward didn’t make the additional and extraordinary saves he needed to.

He provided his critics fuel for their fire to reiterate how executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis had made a mistake in re-signing him, even at a team and hometown discount.

So who could the Hurricanes turn to?

Back-up Eddie Lack had his chance to claim and pull the starting spot from Ward – but didn’t.

With four starts to his credit, Lack currently sits 1-2-0-1 with a 3.78 GAA, and .856 save percentage, allowing less than three goals in only one of those games.

When he and the team in front of him played the way it needed to, a 4-2 win over Calgary was the result, the Hurricanes’ first win of the season.

Thus, what does all this mean as Carolina has evened itself out to holding a 6-6-4 record heading into Sunday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets?

Well, to start, know that the tandem of Ward and Lack can do the job Carolina needs to be a winning team when they play well and it is complemented with consistent scoring.

That’s a big ask, but so far, averaging 2.6 goals per game, the Hurricanes have shown that scoring three, even four goals a game is possible – even more so than years past if early results are any indicator.

A more significant point is that both keepers have short terms remaining on their contracts, each running through 2017-2018.

So what will happen leading up to, and after that time?

Who does Carolina have to call upon if they are injured or don’t play to expectations?

Believe it or not, there are options, as the Hurricanes possess their deepest pool of goaltending prospects the organization has ever had.

Behind Ward and Lack, in order of pro experience, Michael Leighton (6-1, 1.59, .929 – Charlotte), Daniel Altshuller (4-0-1, 1.80, .923 – Florida), and Alex Nedeljkovic (1-3, 3.93, .863 – Charlotte) fortify the net with the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) and East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliates in Charlotte and Florida, respectively.

“I know I’m gettin’ older,” the 35-year old Leighton said back in September after an on-ice session at the Hurricanes main training camp.

“I still feel like I can play and contribute, whether I’m down in Charlotte just splittin’ games or not playin’, I’m gonna be a supportive guy. Obviously, I wanna win, either AHL or NHL. If I’m down (in the AHL), my goal is still to win down there, and help the boys just as much as I can to succeed.”

Even while the AHL’s all-time shutouts leader has stabilized the Checkers net early on, he is there to help those coming up behind him by setting the right example.

Following the 2016 NHL Draft, Carolina has for the first time, more sets of pads to stock than they’ve ever had.

The Hurricanes currently have nine goaltenders with Callum Booth (8-3, 2.60, .921 – Quebec), Jeremy Helvig (8-7-1, 2.72, .907 – Kingston), Jack LaFontaine (1-2-1, 2.70, .923 – Michigan) and Collin Olson (1-0, 1.00, .947 – W. Michigan) rounding out the deeper development corps playing in juniors and college without pro contracts.

Francis has drafted four keepers during his three-year tenure as GM who are working to become part of Carolina’s future goaltending tandem.

In his second tour of duty with Carolina, Leighton was impressed with the direction the team was headed under the direction of goaltending coach David Marcoux who added the NHL’s fourth all-time winningest netminder Curtis Joseph to work with Derek Wilkinson and the goalies in the minors and beyond.

“The more the merrier,” Leighton said.

“More guys to talk to. It’s huge to have someone talk to you and to kind of push you that extra mile – going out on the ice early, staying after doing a couple of extra drills.”

“It’s huge,” Leighton continued when speaking of the depth of goaltenders the organization possesses now.

“You see a lot of injuries in the NHL with goalies now. You need two good AHL goalies and you need a good ECHL goalie because one guy goes up and you need two other guys in the minors still to play. It’s tough to play every night in the minors. You need two guys if you wanna make the playoffs and not miss out on any points. You don’t wanna take one goalie and not have much left. We’ve got good depth here, and for years to come, we’ll be all set here.”

So as Carolina seeks to currently extend its win streak with Ward leading the way, the 15-year veteran knows his role and will continue to win games with Charlotte and teach understudy’s like Nedeljkovic and Altshuller how to be good pros – to get better, be hungry to win, and do it when called upon.

“I know my situation here,” Leighton said.

“Ward and Lack, they’re both great goalies, so I know my position. For me, it’s play my best and maybe somethin’ will happen down the road here or somewhere, or whatever. I’m just playin’ to have fun and to win. Like I said, I wanna win a championship, whether it’s AHL or NHL. That’s my goal.”