To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first NHL Draft, NHL.com assembled a 13-member panel to select the best first-round picks of all time, based on selection number. NHL.com will feature one of the top first-round picks each day, beginning with the best No. 30 pick on June 1 and culminating with the all-time No. 1 pick on June 30, the day of the 2013 NHL Draft.
The Carolina Hurricanes were riding high after reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 2002, and that success carried over to the 2002 NHL Draft.
The first round in Toronto planted the seeds for even greater success a few years later.
Cam Ward, and 11 years later, NHL.com's 13-member Dream Draft panel has voted Ward the best No. 25 first-round pick.
Ward was coming off a strong first season with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. He had been named the league's best goaltender after posting 30 wins and a 2.27 goals-against average.
The Hurricanes let Ward spend two more seasons developing his game, and those included extended runs in the WHL playoffs. He won 40 games in 2002-03, and in 2003-04 he had a 2.05 GAA, .922 save percentage and was named the best player and best goaltender in the WHL. He also won the Canadian Hockey League's best goaltender award.
Ward made his professional debut with the Lowell Lock Monsters, Carolina's American Hockey League affiliate, in 2004-05. He finished fourth in the league with a 1.99 GAA and backstopped Lowell to the second round of the playoffs.
Ward made the Hurricanes' opening-night roster for the 2005-06 season as the backup to veteran Martin Gerber. Ward made his NHL debut in the season opener, Oct. 5, 2005, when Gerber was injured in the second period, and stopped 10 of 11 shots in a 5-2 loss.
Ward finished 14-8-2 in 28 games in his first NHL season, with a 3.68 GAA and .882 save percentage. The Hurricanes won the Southeast Division with Gerber playing the majority of the games, but when Gerber stumbled in Game 2 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, coach Peter Laviolette inserted Ward, and the rookie never relinquished the job. He posted a 2.14 GAA and two shutouts in 23 games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy en route to helping the Hurricanes win their first Stanley Cup.
Ward took over as the full-time goalie the next season and won at least 30 games in five of his first six seasons. He became the 11th goalie in NHL history to be credited with a goal when he was the last Carolina player to touch the puck before New Jersey Devils wing Ilya Kovalchuk put the puck into his own net Dec. 26, 2011.
The Hurricanes have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs once since Ward's rookie season, reaching the 2009 Eastern Conference Final. But he's earned a standing among the best at his position, and this season showed how much Ward means to the organization.
After a 3-2 win against the Florida Panthers on March 3, the Hurricanes had a four-point lead in the Southeast Division. During that game, Ward sprained a ligament in his left knee and missed the rest of the season. Carolina went 7-17-3 afterward and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference, 15 points behind the division-winning Washington Capitals.
Ward's importance to his team, his strong season-by-season play, and the fact he's 29 years old are a few reasons he received a vote from 10 members of NHL.com's Dream Draft panel.
"Cam Ward is a franchise-defining goaltender for the Carolina Hurricanes who has delivered the team a Stanley Cup despite just entering his prime," NHL.com senior managing editor Shawn P. Roarke said. "He could, conceivably, be a difference-maker for the Hurricanes for another decade. That is a legacy that is impossible to ignore."