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After trade talk, Hurricanes' Ward looks to regain form

by Kurt Dusterberg / NHL.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward is not the player he once was. He knows it, and he's not afraid to talk about it. Bluntly.

"I know I've been inconsistent," Ward said. "Inconsistency at the goaltending position is something you can't afford. These last couple years, dealing with injuries and other issues ..."

Ward rethinks his point and continues.

"But excuses are for losers, so those don't do you any favors."

Ward is opting for straight talk these days. Often reticent about his shaky play in recent seasons, he now speaks with nothing-left-to-lose candor. One reason: Early in the summer, Ward learned that the Hurricanes were looking at trade options. In his first days on the job, general manager Ron Francis phoned Ward to let him know.

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"To be honest, at the start of the summer I didn't think I was coming back," Ward said. "I respect Ron for being honest with me all summer long and telling me how it is. It was going in the direction that I wasn't going to be here."

Francis sai he owed it to Ward to be up front.

"We did have that conversation, absolutely," Francis said. "We talked that that was a possibility going into the start of the summer."

One obstacle Francis faced was receiving value for Ward, who has two years and $13.5 million remaining on his contract.

"Quite frankly you look at what you will get back in return," Francis said. "If you make a trade and you don't get something back that makes you better, it isn't good to make that deal. We looked at a lot of different things."

Ward was a tremendous success story early in his career, helping the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2006 and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. In the seasons that followed he carried a heavy load, but then came a sharp turn in his fortunes. Injuries and subpar play prompted Carolina to sign free agent Anton Khudobin last summer to challenge Ward for playing time. Each goaltender sustained an early-season injury, but Khudobin seized the starting job in early January. Ward missed two long stretches with groin injuries and never was able to find his form. He finished the season with 10 wins, a 3.06 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in 30 games.

"Because of the injuries, I have played out of fear that I was going to get hurt again," Ward said. "It's a very difficult position to play when you don't have confidence. I have battled that the last couple years."

It won't get much easier heading into training camp. Khudobin likely has a leg up on the starting job after finishing the 2013-14 season fifth in the League with a .926 save percentage. Plus, Ward will have to come to terms with the realization he was deemed expendable.

He isn't hiding from any of this heavy freight. He tried to sort through it this summer.

"I spent a lot of time with my family," he said. "I spent a lot of time going to church and getting involved in my faith and getting clear-minded that way."

Ward believes he can recapture his old form. He is 30, heading into his 10th season in Carolina. He always has expressed support for the goaltenders who served as his backups, and he equally is respectful of Khudobin, the first player to take the starting job from him. This season, the challenge will be greater.

"I want to be that guy," Ward said. "I'm a big fan of Anton's too. I think he's a great goaltender and we're going to be able to push one another. We're both competitive guys, but I want to be in the net showcasing what I can do. I feel like I'm going to get that opportunity and I want to take care of that opportunity."

New Hurricanes coach Bill Peters has assured Ward he will have the chance.

Cam Ward
Goalie - CAR
RECORD: 10-12-6
GAA: 3.06 | SVP: .898
"Let them compete in seven exhibition games," Peters said. "Everyone's going to play. Everyone's going to have an equal opportunity to show how good they are and how ready they are to start the year on time."

There is a different tone in Carolina this season. Peters, a former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach, has taken over a team that made few roster changes despite missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs five straight seasons. Ward, like many other veteran players, needs to contribute to a turnaround. Francis didn't sugarcoat his message when he spoke about the former Conn Smythe winner.

"Has he been at that [high] level the past few years? No. But he has been there before and we hope he can get back there again," Francis said. "I think he's put himself in a position with how hard he's worked over the summer to have that opportunity. He will come into camp fighting for that job."

It won't be an easy autumn for Ward. Before he can compete with Khudobin, he must replenish his supply of confidence. It starts with optimism.

"I still have time to grow and get better," he said. "I'm only 30 years old. I feel I'm as fresh as I've ever been. That's got to translate over to the ice. There's no reason not to believe I can get better at this game."

The circumstances are not ideal for Ward or the Hurricanes. It is never easy for a player to learn he may no longer be the right fit. But there is a long season ahead, and so much that can happen.

"We had numerous conversations over the summer, and the way it worked out is he's here," Francis said. "We think he can help us and he's worked hard to put himself in a position to have that opportunity. Hopefully that happens."

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