Five games into the season, Khudobin went down with an ankle injury, and Justin Peters was recalled from Charlotte. Five games after that, Ward went down with a groin injury, and Mike Murphy was recalled from Charlotte.
In three short weeks, the Canes’ goaltending picture was erased, the easel wiped clean.
Peters subsequently started 10 games in a row, going 4-1-1 in the latter part of that block of games and setting a career high for consecutive games started without a regulation loss (five).
The Canes’ goaltending picture was being redrawn. Peters, 27 and a veteran who has seen varying time with the Canes over five seasons, had proven his worth at the NHL level, turning away 166 of his last 175 shots faced (.949 save percentage).
“This is the best stretch of games that Justin has played in his pro career. He was a difference-maker. He got us some points in a bunch of those games,” Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford said. “I can see his development improving all the time, even more so this year when you look at some of the things he does now. He’s had a very impressive run.”
Now Ward is once again healthy. Khudobin, who’s had a bit more of a prolonged rehab due to the nature of his injury, is practicing with the Canes again; it was a week before Ward returned to game action after rejoining the team at practice.
“First, Khudobin has to get healthy to be in the picture,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “So right now we’re just dealing with two healthy guys (Ward and Peters), and we’ll go with really who’s the guy that’s going to best give us the chance to win every night.”
Like Ward, who admitted he was pushing to get back into the lineup as early as last week, Khudobin will have to be 100 percent before he gets consideration to play in goal.
“We can’t use these games to get fine-tuned. It’s not exhibition anymore,” Muller said. “We’ve got to win hockey games. So if you step in, you have to step in with the mindset that you can win the hockey game.”
Assuming the Canes wind up with three healthy goaltenders in a week or so, then what?
Carolina has a few options.
The first would have been the most likely a few weeks ago -- reassigning Peters to Charlotte where he will continue to see regular starts and provide the Checkers with much-needed goaltending help.
But since he has played in 11 games, even on emergency recall, he will need to first clear waivers, as designated by the new collective bargaining agreement signed by the NHL and NHLPA earlier this year.
Considering the way Peters played in November and the number of teams currently experiencing goaltending issues due to injuries or otherwise, he might not clear, and the Canes would lose an NHL-capable goaltender who they have groomed since selecting him in the second round of the 2004 NHL Draft with no return.
Another option, then, is to explore trade options. Of course, this sacrifices depth in one position with the goal of bolstering another, but it could be a viable way to salvage a return in an otherwise difficult situation.
A third option is to keep three goaltenders on the roster, but that’s not exactly ideal considering it would limit available depth at forward and defense. Peters, however, is on a one-way contract, so he will earn the same amount of money whether he’s in the NHL or the AHL.
“Justin did a great job and showed that he can play at this level, and so can the other two,” Muller said. “We’ve got a nice, healthy problem right now.
“If we do get three guys, we will have to make a decision.”
A difficult one, at that.
“We’re going to have a tough decision to make. We don’t have to make it yet, but we’re aware of it,” Rutherford said. “We’ve got everybody weighing in on it, and we’ll make the decision at the time when we have to.”