They’ve seen the highest of highs, but like most young players, the challenge for Eric Staal
and Cam Ward
has been consistently playing up to their potential over long periods of time.
From this past season’s All-Star break up until the entire team ran out of steam in the Conference Finals, both players seemed to accomplish just that.
During that span, Staal scored 29 goals and 53 points in 48 games, while Cam Ward posted a 2.26 goals-against average and .923 save percentage with six shutouts as the Hurricanes went 30-16-2. Over an 82-game regular season, that pace would have put Staal in second place in the NHL with 49 goals and in the top 10 in overall points. For Ward, it would have placed him among the league leaders in nearly every category and made him a sure-fire Vezina Trophy finalist.
They each had a few huge nights during the team’s run, but not enough to skew those numbers and hide some quiet stretches. They were they team’s best players nearly every single game.
Although lofty, each player is capable of putting up those stats on a regular basis, not just in short spurts. After going through growing periods that are to be expected from players that are still just 24 and 25 years of age, the feeling is that each player has turned the corner towards being able to consistently dominate games – a prospect that, if true, bodes extremely well for the future of the Carolina Hurricanes.
“When you have Staal and Ward as your two guys to build around, this franchise is going to be solid until they run down,” said Ray Whitney. “If you can continue to put good supporting casts around them, I think you’re going to have a successful franchise for a long time coming ahead.”
What changed this season? For one, they have more experience, which almost always improves that consistency over time. However, philosophical changes brought about by the team’s new coaching staff in midseason seem to have done both players a world of good.
For Staal, effort was never a question, but he needed help learning to channel his energy in a direction that would help the team as a whole. Head Coach Paul Maurice often spoke of how Staal, burdened with the pressure of trying to be a difference maker night after night, would often try too hard to score goals at the expense of responsible defensive play.
The belief was that if Staal could play a more patient game, the offense would actually increase, which turned out to be the case. His regular season points per game after the coaching change was 1.05, as opposed to just 0.6 beforehand.
“I think I figured out what makes me good night in and night out,” said Staal. “It kind of happened in January or February right after the coaching change where I maybe figured my game out a little more. I was really satisfied with the way I played in the second half and throughout the playoffs, so hopefully I can start with that right away at the beginning of the year and help this team get another chance at the Cup.”
There were a number of factors in Ward’s turnaround. First, it was the calmness that came from knowing that he would be the team’s rock no matter what, as he started 68 of a possible 71 games under Maurice, including all 18 playoff contests. In the rare occasion that he was pulled from a game due to poor performance by either himself or the team in front of him, there was little question that he would be the starter at the next opportunity.
“In the last quarter I was really happy with the consistency and knowing that even if things were to go wrong that I was going to be going back into the net,” said Ward, who sat for seven of 25 games prior to the coaching change. “I just had that confidence from the team and the coaching staff.”
That translated into an extremely heavy workload, but one that nearly every goaltender covets.
“If you look at our schedule it was a really busy schedule, but at the same time playing every other day kept you into that routine and into that rhythm,” he said. “Especially when things are going well, all you want to do is get back into that net.”
There was also the much-celebrated work of Tom Barrasso as his full-time goaltending coach
and an overall change in the team’s system, which helped to ease the nightly burden that Ward was subjected to. His shots against per game only went down by two after the coaching change, but the number of high-percentage ones certainly decreased by more than that.
“When Mo came in, it was a different set of eyes and different opinions,” said Ward. “One of the areas that he really helped out was the defensive zone, and as a goaltender it helped me a lot knowing that our team was emphasizing more on our defensive zone and taking away the quality chances that we had been giving up earlier in the season.”
In his postseason press conference, General Manager Jim Rutherford remarked that, “Nothing other than Eric Staal
and Cam Ward
are cast in stone at this point.” That wasn’t meant to be a warning to the rest of the team heading into the offseason, but rather a testament to the importance of those two players to the team’s long-term future.
Now that those two have proven themselves worthy of that designation as franchise players, that future should be very bright.