Hurricanes’ Cam Ward Healthy, Carolina Notes

By Dylan Howlett (@DylanHowlett)

The Hurricanes awakened March 3 to a day of alluring possibilities.

The sun shone brilliantly in Sunrise, Fla., as they awaited that evening’s tussle with the downtrodden Florida Panthers. They were firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Carolina would build a three-goal lead early in the second period.

Then, Florida defenseman Tyson Strachan missed the net on a slap shot — an innocuous, commonplace occurrence if not for the calamitous result.

Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward crumpled in his crease. His MCL had just suffered a third-degree sprain, and his team’s playoff hopes sustained third-degree burns.

Ward would miss the final 27 games of the regular season. His replacements, nomadic backup Dan Ellis and minor leaguer Justin Peters, couldn’t fill an outsize void. The Hurricanes went 7-17-3 in Ward’s conspicuous absence, plummeted out of the playoff picture and earned the displeasure of the fifth-overall selection in this year’s entry draft.

His injury spelled the demise of the Canes' 2013 playoff hopes, but Cam Ward has returned to full health, his GM says (Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).

His injury spelled the demise of the Canes’ 2013 playoff hopes, but Cam Ward has returned to full health, his GM says (Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).

It was not a sudden gust of wind, but rather a collective exhale heard from The Triangle on Tuesday afternoon when General Manager Jim Rutherford declared Ward fully healthy.

“He’s better and stronger than he’s ever been because he worked so hard on his rehab after his injury,” Rutherford told Mark Spector of Edmonton radio’s The Team 1260.

Ward’s recovery has progressed so expeditiously, Rutherford said, that he’ll be available for Team Canada’s summer camp in August, should Canada invite him.

“He’s a top-shelf goalie,” Rutherford said. “He’s a guy that certainly should be one of the Canadian goalies.”

Ward won’t need an invitation back to the Hurricanes’ crease. For he’s the difference, evidently, between a borderline playoff team and a lottery draft pick.

* * *

Life for Rangers defenseman Marc Staal changed irreparably March 5, two days after the Hurricanes’ season — trivial in comparison — was effectively torpedoed by Ward’s injury.

A puck struck Staal’s unprotected face, causing a small tear in his right eye. Staal revealed later in March that his injured eye would likely never regain its full capacity.

Staal had never worn a visor in his career, nor had his brothers, Eric and Jordan. That changed when Marc took the puck to his eye. Eric and Jordan soon donned visors and intend to wear them for the rest of their playing days. 

The players’ long-held visor prerogative, exercised by all three Staal brothers before Marc’s harrowing ordeal, might be stripped by the league at the recommendation of the NHL’s Competition Committee. The committee announced Tuesday its proposal to mandate visors and provide NHL players with at least 26 games of experience the option to play without one.

“Our game has gotten so fast now that you can’t react quick enough if a puck’s coming at your face,” Rutherford said Tuesday on The Mark Spector Show. “Quite frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would play now without one.”

The visor hardliners contend that the thin strip of protection poses a formidable inconvenience, requiring constant toweling off to remove steam and sweat and impeding on-ice vision. The Staal brothers were considered keepers of this philosophy until Mar. 5 — upon which the change to a visor, according to Rutherford, was not nearly as burdensome as expected.

“Both these guys (Eric and Jordan) are really good players, and they can make adjustments to a lot of things,” said Rutherford. “They did it for the obvious reason (Marc’s injury). It was an awful hit that Marc got.”

Rutherford was also vocal about taming the bloated equipment of goalies, another principal target of the competition committee. The committee commissioned a subcommittee to reevaluate the size of goaltenders’ equipment.

Rutherford, a 13-year NHL goalie who authored 14 career shutouts, called on the Players’ Association and NHL to take a “firm stance” on goaltending equipment.

“Unfortunately, when your give something to someone, it’s hard to get it back,” Rutherford said, referring to past concessions made to goaltenders on equipment debates. “The number-one thing for all players, but especially goalies, is that they have to be protected properly. But the goalies now have taken that to a whole other level and have made their equipment bigger.

“The bigger it is, it’s not necessarily to protect them more,” Rutherford continued. “It’s to stop more pucks.”

* * *

Rutherford spoke glowingly of former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, a reported candidate for the Edmonton Oilers’ associate coaching vacancy. 

“He’s a good guy to work with,” Rutherford said of Maurice, whom Rutherford replaced with current head coach Kirk Muller in November 2011. Maurice has served two turbulent tenures as Canes bench boss, one from 1997 to 2004 and 2008 to 2011.

“He’s a very bright guy in general, but he’s a very bright hockey guy,” Rutherford said. “He’d be a great choice for (Edmonton).”

Maurice knows Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger from their days together in Raleigh, when Krueger was a European Consultant for the Canes from 2005 to 2010. The Hurricanes also drafted Krueger’s son, Justin, in the seventh round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

“I think bringing a guy like him in at this time with where the Oilers are at, just on the verge of taking that big step forward, would be a good choice,” said Rutherford.

The Canes’ GM pointed to Maurice’s eclectic experiences — small-market coach in Carolina, big-market coach in hockey-crazy Toronto, and most recently, head coach of the Kontinental Hockey League’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk — as proof of his enduring ability to connect with players.

“If you talk to the players who played for Paul Maurice over the years,” Rutherford said, “most of those players are going to say they really liked playing for him and learned a lot from him.”

*Note: Listen to Jim Rutherford’s full discussion on The Mark Spector Show here (Mark Spector, June 4, Hour 2; Rutherford interview begins at 39:21).

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