RALEIGH, N.C. -- Every NHL player would like to start the season under ideal circumstances, healthy and refreshed after a promising season, for example.
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward won't have the luxury of that mindset. He will have to dig a little deeper.
Ward's 2012-13 season ended March 3 when he suffered a third-degree sprain of his medial collateral ligament against the Florida Panthers. At the time, his game was on the rise after a slow start in which he allowed four goals in six of his first 11 starts.
Fast forward to training camp, where Ward had to find his game all over again.
Fair or not, the Carolina Hurricanes need Cam Ward to be better if they hope to end a four-year playoff drought. (Photo: Phil Ellsworth/NHLI)
"It's an injury that's a little bit tougher on a goaltender because we use our knees so much on the ice," Ward said. "But with the help of (Hurricanes trainer) Pete Friesen, I had a good program and I was able to maintain it throughout the summer. Because of that, I don't have any problems or any pain in my knee."
It was eight seasons ago when Ward, a 22-year-old rookie, took over the net in the playoffs and led the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup. Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy and immediately was installed as Carolina's starter. But in the seven seasons since, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs just once.
That's one of the reasons the upcoming season has an air of importance for Ward. Fair or not, the Hurricanes need him to be better if they hope to end a four-year playoff drought.
"I realize I'm a big part of this team and I need to be at the top of my game in order for us to be successful," Ward said.
While Ward enters the season as the clear starter, Carolina's choice of backups might signal a shift in philosophy. Over the summer, the Hurricanes signed former Boston Bruins netminder Anton Khudobin, who carries a 2.03 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 21 career NHL games. Those numbers suggest he might be in line for a closer look, a departure from past veteran backups like John Grahame, Brian Boucher and Dan Ellis, who knew their role would be limited behind Ward.
"I think Cam has the want and the mental makeup," Hurricanes goaltending coach Greg Stefan said. "He's had the feel of being an elite guy, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup at a young age, then getting the team back to the Eastern Conference Finals (in 2009). So he's had that taste."
But four seasons without a playoff appearance leaves Ward with a measured approach to how he views his role.
"I don't think it's just about me, but I certainly put pressure on myself to give this team a chance to win on a nightly basis," he said. "That being said, you don't have to go into every game thinking you're going to be great. You have to be steady and consistent. I'm confident with the group we have here that we can get back into the playoffs."
In a season where Ward has much to overcome, he is saddled with another reality that stings. He was not invited to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp in August, ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
GAA: 2.84 | SVP: 0.908
"I think that's motivation," Ward said. "I was disappointed to be left off the list for the summer evaluation camp. If I can use that as adding more fire to the fire that already exists, then I'm going to do so."
With five goaltenders ahead of him on Canada's wish list, Ward gave a nod to the invited players.
"I think there's a lot of good goaltenders in Canada," he said. "There are young kids like [Braden] Holtby and [Corey] Crawford. There's always going to be that stiff competition. At the same time, I believe that whoever is playing the best at the time is going to be on the team, and I hope I'm one of those guys."
In the meantime, Ward will fine tune his game. He struggled in his first two preseason starts, but Stefan feels it's nothing that can't be fixed with better positioning and anticipation.
"I think he's very, very close," Stefan said. "I think he's going to do some things this year that are not only going to make him one of the top goalies, but I think he's going to give our team a chance to do what we want to do as an organization."
Ward thinks so too. And if all goes well, he might be doing double duty this winter in Raleigh and Sochi.
"It's a process, and I want to continue to get better every game," Ward said. "Hopefully I'm going to get off to a great start and hopefully be in consideration. If I'm in consideration, I know the Hurricanes are doing well."