Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward is a decade into a professional hockey career that already includes a Stanley Cup, and still looking for his game. More to the point, Ward is in search of improved technical structure, which he admits has been missing for a while.
At age 30, Ward is only now trying to modernize a game that became outdated. He even updated his equipment to match this summer.
Ward reached out to a former coach from his junior hockey days during the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, looking for help finding the game that once landed him on Canada's Olympic shortlist. That task now falls to former Calgary Flames goaltending coach David Marcoux, who was hired by the Hurricanes during the summer.
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward is a decade into a professional hockey career that already includes a Stanley Cup, but is in search of improved technical structure. (Photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI)
More than eight years since winning the 2006 Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie, Ward is eager to get back to work. After an .898 save percentage last season, there is a lot to be done.
"I needed to get that structure back into my game, where the game used to be very simple, very easy, less movement," Ward told NHL.com. "I started to get a little bit too much all over the place, and especially now in this game you can't be too, too aggressive. So we're just working on structure and trying to quiet my game."
Ward's game has been anything but quiet in recent years, with extra movement on his skates and not enough of it once he was on his knees, which left him reaching for pucks rather than recovering to his next save position.
It was a bad combination. The extra movement opened holes as he tried to recover from aggressive positions and left Ward overly reliant on timing and "rhythm." And all the reaching left him dependent on reactionary athleticism.
Don't expect Ward to follow the recent trend of playing on the goal line -- "I can't get away with that," he said, "I feel like I am naked" -- but he recognizes he can't be quite as aggressive as before.
"There has to be more of a balance to it," Ward said.
Timing and athleticism remain part of that balance. But too often he was relying on them to bail out poor technique and tactical decisions that left him out of position. He was making too many of the easy saves harder than they needed to be by not putting his body behind them. You're a lot more likely to miss with an outstretched glove than a squared-up chest.
"With him there was a lot of lunging to make a save and just that bad habit of reaching and lunging and hoping and wishing and putting a stick in there," Marcoux told NHL.com. "Move your body instead. There are three-and-a half inches of stick, or there is a complete body that can go on that rebound. He's very athletic, but at that age you need just to use your experience, your knowledge, the reading of a release of the shooter. He has been very good working on that."
There have been signs that work is starting to pay off.
After a winless October for Carolina that included an .840 save percentage over four games for Ward, he won five straight to begin November and was 6-2-0 with a .931 save percentage for the month through Nov. 18.
It's an extremely small sample size for a goalie that has been below the average save percentage for five of his nine NHL seasons. There remains a lot of work to be done and technical wrinkles to iron out, some of which will take time.
Ward talked in late October about struggling physically to add the Reverse, a relatively new post-integration tactic for dead-angle attacks and plays from behind the net. By mid-November he was using it in games.
Before Ward could start fixing what ailed him between the pipes, however, he needed to settle down between the ears.
Goalie - CAR
GAA: 2.57 | SVP: .903
In addition to hearing rumors he was on the trade block, Ward, who has this season and next left on a contract with a $6.3-million annual average, had to stop thinking about how to play.
"First and foremost this summer I needed to refresh my mental state," Ward said. "A lot of my problems last year were trying to think about how I used to play, trying to find that instead of just going out there and playing. Part of me playing on top of my game is when I am not thinking at all, trusting my instincts, trusting my confidence and trusting my ability and reading the play as it goes along. Last year it got to a point where I was worried about everything: Is my glove in the right position? Is my stick? I had to quiet my mind."
That probably doesn't sound like a goalie that needed to have new concepts introduced, or even one ready to make big changes. But Ward went so far as to alter his equipment this summer, moving to a lighter, looser-fitting Vaughn pad and adding a sliding toe bridge to it for the first time in his career, all of which are designed to create a better seal along the ice while also reducing the stress on his ankles, knees and hips required to create it.
As for evolving his technique, the challenge for any goaltending coach is to make changes with enough practice repetitions that they become instinctual in a game, something the goalie does without having to think about it.
For Marcoux, who also tweaked Miikka Kiprusoff's technical game in Calgary, the challenge was doing so without wearing out Ward, who has been plagued by a laundry list of injuries in recent years.
"It's managing quality instead of quantity," Marcoux said. "It's demanding more when you are in the net. Wardo is 30 years old now. When Kiprusoff hit 30 he needed to understand quality of reps, not quantity. When you are in there, don't dog it."
For Ward, who also worked with Marcoux in the American Hockey League in 2004-05, that included seeking out a couple of on-ice sessions together this summer.
"To see Dave in the summer was important," Ward said. "Just to get back to good habits and structure in my game."
For Ward and the Hurricanes, those were missing for too long.