Free agent Cam Ward unsure if Hurricanes want him back

Cam Ward wasn't too pleased with himself after allowing a third goal to the Rangers, this one from a sharp angle. He took out his anger on his stick, smashing it against the cage.

Cam Ward was Matt Murray before Matt Murray was Matt Murray.

But that was 10 years ago, when Ward went from late-season AHL call-up to a rookie goaltender starring in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ward won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

If anyone knows what 21-year-old Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray is feeling right now, backstopping his club to within two wins of Cup Final appearance, it’s Ward.

“My mindset was, no matter what’s going to happen, I’m going to enjoy the moment,” Ward told Andrew Walker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Thursday. “He’s really got nothing to lose.”

LISTEN: Cam Ward talks Murray, Kessel, Staal, free agency

Ward said it’s been great to see Murray look so confident in net. Ward is now 32 and eight years removed from his last post-season appearance, so his own captivating run to the Cup seems distant.

“To be brutally honest, it feels like a long time ago now,” Ward said. “I certainly would love to get that opportunity again. Still working on it.”

A fan of the game, Ward has been keeping tabs on the post-season through highlights but hasn’t sat down to take in a full game since friends Andrew Ladd (Blackhawks) and Eric Staal (Rangers) were eliminated in Round 1.

One sniper who persistently pops up in those highlights is Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel. Ward says the star’s best attribute is his deceptively hard shot, so often unleashed as he’s streaking down the wing.

“The way he can release the puck, he actually gave me a concussion this year,” Ward said. “It smoked me right between the eyes. Not many guys can do that.”

As with friends Staal and Ladd, Ward appears destined for unrestricted free agency this summer. He said it was difficult to watch Staal, a teammate of 12 straight years, get traded from Carolina at the deadline.

Ward considers Staal one of his best pals off the ice, and the deal went down as the Hurricanes were getting dressed to play the St. Louis Blues. There was little time for good-byes.

“The way it went down, it was tough to watch,” Ward said. “As far as the future, I don’t know what’s in store for him, for myself. I’m kinda waiting to see what happens here.”

July 1 should mark another difficult day for the starting goaltender. Ward made it clear in his exit interviews with management that he’d love to stay in Carolina, “but the feeling has got to be mutual.”

The end of Ward’s long-term contract, which carried a $6.3 million cap hit, signals an inevitable pay cut.

Working in the UFA’s favour is that Cup ring and his ability to retain the No. 1 post in Carolina for 11 years, despite recent challenges from Anton Khudobin and Eddie Lack.

Ward had a respectable 23-17-5 record for a mediocre Hurricanes squad this season but did see his save percentage fall to .909.

“We have to do our due diligence. We have to make sure we’re making a decision that makes the organization better. That may be signing Cam; that may be going in a different direction,” GM Ron Francis said at season’s end.

The good news for Ward is that besides San Jose Sharks backup James Reimer, the 2016 UFA class features a crowd of unproven or also-ran goalies who would love to get more playing time. Names like Karri Ramo, Niklas Backstrom, Jhonas Enroth, Carter Hutton and the aforementioned Khudobin.

Count the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, and, yes, the Hurricanes among the clubs searching for a true No. 1, with another handful of teams — Dallas, Anaheim, Detroit, Florida, Boston — potentially looking to shake things up with their crease depth.

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