His exceptional play in net during the 2006 NHL playoffs helped Carolina earn its first-ever Cup victory in 2006, which was also accompanied by the Conn Smythe Trophy being awarded to the then 22-year old rookie as the playoff MVP.
It was a high standard that he set early in his career, but one that hasn’t been repeated since.
He and the Hurricanes haven’t competed for the chance to win another title for six straight seasons now.
Ward is still the team’s top netminder, but he plays with a lot more scrutiny coming his way as a result of his team’s inability to make the postseason, and with him carrying what is now considered by many as a high price tag for that shortfall.
In addition to bringing in Eddie Lack from the Vancouver Canucks this past summer, Carolina has restocked its goaltending corps through the last few drafts, in order to look towards the future.
Those goalies still have a ways to go, but are in a prime position to be put into service sooner than later, should Ward and the Hurricanes, the only team he’s played for, not come to terms on a new contract by the end of the 2015-2016 season.
What Ward possesses over all of them is his experience, and more specifically, the ability to persevere through injury and scrutiny.
For the Hurricanes’ cadre of younger keepers, like Alex Nedeljkovic, the team’s second pick (37th overall) in the 2014 NHL draft, who missed this summer’s prospect training camp recovering from hip surgery, he could take some tips from the veteran who’s experienced his share of physical challenges throughout his career.
“The position that we’re in, there’s always going to be a risk of injury,” Ward said.
“I’ve learned over the years how to care of my body a little bit better – that’s just learning from past experiences. When I was Ned’s age, my conditioning wasn’t very good, and that made it easier to get an injury. I don’t know his specific conditioning is, but you learn over the years. I’m sure through camps, I’m in conversations with the goalies in the process, if I can offer any sort of advice through my years, I’m happy to do so.”
“It’s all about getting prepared and doing what you can in the summer time to make sure that you’re ready to go,” he continued.
Ward talked specifically about what he’s adjusted in his training as the years have progressed into his 11th season fronting the Hurricanes’ net.
“I think it’s a happy balance,” he said.
“I like to take a break from on the ice when the season’s over, just to clear the mind and I’m more focused on my off-ice (work). Come the middle of summer, you definitely want to get back on the ice and get that hunger again.”
Besides putting his body in front of pucks, Ward pointed out a key factor for any goaltender to work on as the season approaches.
To help him readjust his visual skills and abilities, Ward has worked with Hurricanes head athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach Peter Friesen, who’s put him through various drills to view the puck with his helmet on before heading out onto the ice to face shots.
“For me, positionally, it’s all about looking through a cage again,” Ward said.
“You can do all the training in the world, but when you come back to skate for the first time and throw the helmet on, it throws you off a little bit, looking through that cage again.”
While contract talk will continue and play out with his agent, Rick Curran, and Carolina executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis, Ward is focused on stopping pucks and not on signing papers.
The top spot is his to keep, particularly if his numbers stay the same or improve on last year when he made 51 starts – the most in four years – and which resulted in him posting a career-best 2.40 goals-against average.
For now, he’s just preparing for the upcoming season.
He wants to stay with Carolina, the team he started with, and the one that he’s earned all of his career accolades playing for.
So, with his early return to Raleigh to begin on-ice work with captain Eric Staal and a number of other players, his intentions are solely on having another productive season for himself and the team.
“I feel real strong and ready to go,” Ward said.