When I wrote my review of Cam Ward's season about a month ago, I said this:
"I wouldn't put Ward in an elite class like his contract indicates but I do think he will provide the Canes with stable and reliable goaltending for the remainder of his contract."
Why would I not consider a goalie like Ward "elite?" He played in 74 games last season and posted a .927 save percentage. He played a huge role in the Canes Stanley Cup victory in his rookie season. He's started 75% of Carolina's games for the past four seasons. What makes him not one of the absolute best goalies in the league right now? Here's why: The difference between the 6th and 18th best goalie in the league is often very little (something like .005 %) and the word "elite" should only be given to those who really excel above the league average (last year it was .920, since the lockout it's .918) and do it on a consistent basis. A couple months ago, I created a few definitions of what makes an elite goaltender, but I discovered some problems with this, mostly with how goalies who were top-level years ago ended up being close to "elite" through this definition (think Giguere and Kiprusoff). With how much a goalie's performance can change over a short period of time, I'm not sure looking at stats since the lockout is the best way to define elite goalies, but there areother things we can do and they will help show where Ward stands among other top-level goalies in the league and if he belongs in an elite class.
Ward may have helped the Canes win the Cup his rookie season, but he was not that good of a goalie his first three seasons. In fact, he had a sub-.900 save percentage at even strength his first two and was below-average in this third. This is why we can't call him an elite goalie since the lockout. However, in his last three seasons, it's been a much more positive story for Ward as he's had even strength save percentages of .926, .924 and .927, respectively and an overall save percentage of .926. The league average save percentage for goalies at even strength during this time is .920 and Ward's overall ES save percentage from 2009-11 puts him very high in the rankings. Goalies who have posted similar save percentages during this period are Carey Price, Ryan Miller, Kari Lehtonen and Ilya Bryzgalov. That's pretty good company to be in, as far as I'm concerned. Goalies who had higher save percentages than him were Pekka Rinne, Tim Thomas, Jonas Hiller and Roberto Luongo. Three of which were the Veznia finalists in this most recent season and the other one would have been if it weren't for injuries. By this, it does not seem too out of the question to put Ward in an elite class but this seems like we're just cherry-picking because we're only judging Ward by the last three years, which conveniently happen to be his three best seasons.
"Elite" is a tough definition to figure out for goalies because everyone has their own viewpoints on it. Would you consider Ward a top-level goalie because he's had three very good seasons? Would you be comfortable putting him in the same class as Roberto Luongo or even Henrik Lundqvist? I am not 100% sure if I would but it's the same case I have with not calling Pekka Rinne an "elite" goalie because he's only played in three full seasons. Is he a top goalie in the game right now? Absolutely. Elite? If he can keep putting up these kind of numbers for another season or two, then yes.
There's a lot of things about Ward that make me confident, though. First of all he's only 27 and in the prime of his career right now so it should not be a surprise to anyone that he has been improving with every season. Ward was one of the main reasons that this team was able to be in the position that they were last year and it's possible that he could be what keeps the Hurricanes in almost every game they play even if the team is struggling. When looking at the best single season goalie performances, a lot of these goalies had the best seasons when they were in their late 20's/early 30's so Ward's best seasons could be very soon. I don't know if I would consider Ward an elite goalie like Thomas or Luongo now but if his trend of improving with every season continues, then maybe I will be in that mindset. Either way, Ward is on track to give the Canes great and stable goaltending for at least the rest of his contract even if he isn't elite.