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Droschak: Another Rock Solid Cornerstone

Wednesday, 09.30.2009 / 2:53 PM / News
By David Droschak
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Droschak: Another Rock Solid Cornerstone
With the ups and downs of professional sports franchises more evident with each passing year, Jim Rutherford can look over his shoulder the next six seasons and be comforted by the faces of Eric Staal and Cam Ward.

One season after Staal signed a long-term extension that made him the highest-paid player for the Carolina Hurricanes at $8.25 million a season, Rutherford and Ward watched a short video of some of the goalie’s key saves and career highlights this afternoon before Ward inked a new six-year deal worth an average of $6.3 million per season.

Just like most of his key saves, Ward signed on the dotted line without blinking.

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Ward, 25, will make $3.5 million this season before his new $37.8 million deal kicks in next year, making him one of the highest paid goalies in the NHL.

Rutherford said Ward more than earned his contract after winning a Stanley Cup in 2006, then posting 37 and 39 wins the last two seasons as he took the Hurricanes to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals with Game 7 wins over New Jersey and Boston.

“Going into last season, I had already started thinking about where we were going to have to go with this contract and where he’s slotted in with the other goalies,” Rutherford said. “But every time he does something like he did in the second half of the season, and winning those two Game 7s, it’s just more conformation of what we think of Cam.”

“A lot is based on your performance when it matters the most, and obviously the playoffs is a time to turn your game up a notch,” added Ward. “I want to be known as a winner, I want to be known as a guy that plays well in the big games and I think I’ve been pretty solid in that category.”  

Ward now joins goalies such as Henrik Lundqvist ($6.87 million) of the New York Rangers, Roberto Luongo ($6.75 million) of Vancouver, Ryan Miller ($6.25 million) of Buffalo, Niklas Backstrom ($6 million) of Minnesota and J-S Giguere ($6 million) of Anaheim among the highest-paid goalies in the league.

Rutherford laughed when I asked about his highest NHL salary. It was $175,000 in 1982-83 for Detroit.

“And I was actually in the upper pay group of the goalies of that time,” the GM said. “That was a lot of money in those days and I was pretty happy with it. When I played I didn’t think we would see this day for any player, but obviously times have changed and hockey has really grown.”

Speaking of growing, Rutherford has watched Ward develop into a top-flight NHL goalie since his teenage years, drafting him 25th overall in 2002, one season before taking Staal second overall. That means both of the team’s best players are home-grown talent.

“Lots of teams go out and give a lot of money to free agents, and they see what they do on the ice but they really don’t know that player,” Rutherford said. “We know Eric and Cam really well. We drafted them at a really young age as teenagers and we watched them grow and develop into men now and great players. I feel a lot more comfortable giving a long-term contract like this to players we drafted.”

Ward plans to follow the lead of Staal and buy the entire team dinner on the road. Will it be steak or lobster, or both?

“I’m fortunate to be playing with some great players and I will definitely give thanks to them,” Ward said when asked what he would buy with his new contract cash. “I realize those D-men block shots and the forwards score goals, and this day wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for help. It’s something I will definitely be doing.”

Ward, in the running to be Team Canada’s goalie in the Olympics, is 120-77-18 in his career with 12 shutouts as he begins a quest to sooner-than-later erase the team’s all-time franchise marks for goalies, all held by Arturs Irbe. One stat that is extremely impressive, besides his 23-18 career playoff mark, is a 45-23-5 record against teams from the Southeast Division. 

One tremendous positive for Ward’s development, both physically between the pipes and mentally with pregame preparations, has been his recent relationship with goaltending coach Tom Barrasso, one of the best American goalies ever, who won two Cups with Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. 

“Tommy Barrasso is definitely a guy who has been there and done that,” Ward said. “I realize that if I do have problems I can go to a guy who really understands the position. Not everybody has a guy like that. He was a big help to me last year.”

“Sure this is added pressure, but it’s a good pressure,” added Ward. “I realize I’m being paid to be an elite NHL goaltender and I want to perform like an elite NHL goaltender. We’re human and there are going to be those off nights, but I want to be able to say that I’m a consistent goalie and that I’m only going to get better. I still have another level to reach. And I wouldn’t be committing to a long-term deal here if I didn’t think we had a great team and a chance to win more Stanley Cups because that’s what it’s all about, it’s about the ultimate prize.”

On the fourth floor of the RBC Center, it’s hard for Rutherford to miss a large photo of Ward making a key toe save in the waning moments of the Cup Finals in 2006 as he walks to and from the elevator each work day. And for the near and distant future, Ward’s presence with the franchise will loom large.  

It seems odd to talk about a contract running through the 2015-16 season, but few who know Ward well expect contract numbers to go to his head.  

 “He wants to win, it doesn’t matter if he’s in practice or playing in a game,” Rutherford said. “It’s about winning for him. His makeup as a person has proven that.”

Not lost in all the numbers was that Ward and his wife Cody have an affinity for living in the Triangle, where he started “Cam’s Champs” in 2006-07 to raise funds and awareness for Special Olympics of North Carolina.

“It has been a lot of fun the last five years to play here and us as players are lucky to be able to play in such a great city,” said Ward, who now spends the off-seasons in Raleigh after growing up in Alberta. “A lot has happened here and that’s when I realize how fortunate I am.”

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