The Carolina Hurricanes' goaltending dilemma grows more complex by the week.
Just as Anton Khudobin's imminent return was about to force a decision out of general manager Jim Rutherford, Cam Ward has begun to show signs that his latest slump may be more than a standard dip in his prototypical irregularity.
And that has sent another tsunami into the team's once-obvious netminding situation.
Ward has won just one of his past four starts and hasn't posted a save percentage above .900 in five consecutive appearances:
|Cam Ward's Last Five Starts|
|Nov. 27||Hurricanes at Devils||4-3 W||19||22||.864|
|Nov. 29||Devils at Hurricanes||2-5 L||26||31||.839|
|Dec. 1||Canucks at Hurricanes||2-3 L||27||30||.900|
|Dec. 6||Sharks at Hurricanes||5-3 W||22||25||.880|
|Dec. 10||Hurricanes at Oilers||4-5 OTL||24||29||.828|
It's by far the worst stretch of 2013-14 so far for the 29-year-old longtime franchise cornerstone. Despite starting the season 0-2-3, No. 30 still posted save percentages of .920 or better in three of those five games.
However, considering Ward's enormous injury woes over the course of the calendar year, his increasingly unreliable play adds up to a tremendously destabilizing 2013 for the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Since March 21, 2012, Ward has won three straight starts just once—the final three games before his season-ending MCL sprain last spring.
This autumn, moreover, Ward has posted back-to-back games with a .900-plus save percentage just twice. He's frequently alternated between .950- and .850-ish efforts.
Until this most recent stretch.
Now Khudobin's long-awaited return to the healthy lineup will only add more to the puzzle.
The former Bruins goaltender, who boasts a 16-5-3 career NHL record and started the season 2-0-0 with a .929 save percentage for Carolina, was injured on Oct. 13 and initially anticipated to miss around two weeks.
His much-extended absence has paved the way for Justin Peters' career revival and some other positives. Yet, almost nine weeks later, No. 31 is finally on the verge of reactivation—and it's going to triple the pressure on Rutherford to make a decision.
Peters, who now sports a .924 save percentage on the season and an above-.900 performance in 10 consecutive matches, would require waivers to return to the AHL now. The floundering, goalie-lacking New York Islanders would grab him happily.
Nonetheless, this three-headed monster known as the Hurricanes' goaltending dilemma may be perplexing, but it's also not new—the issue has been debated for weeks.
What has changed is Ward's stability in Rutherford's internal judgement.
Once almost a god above the two peasants fighting for his understudy role, Ward may now be slipping into the same cauldron as the others. He'll still get plenty of opportunities to turn his ongoing slump around, but his ability to do so may be somewhat questionable.
How long will Ward's tough times continue? Could this supposed slump be merely the new median line for an injury-weakened No. 30?
Only time will answer those questions—and determine his fate with the Hurricanes, as well.