Francis talks up Ward, says contract decision coming ‘fairly soon’

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Tell you what — you read what Carolina GM Ron Francis said about pending UFA goalie Cam Ward on Thursday, and tell me he doesn’t sound like a guy planning on bringing Ward back:

“We’ll make a decision fairly soon in that regard. When we look at Cam, part of my job is making sure I go through the meetings with my pro guys and assessing what’s out there in the free agent market, and talking to all the other GMs and seeing which goaltenders may or may not be available — and with the ones that are, what the price is.

“As I sit here today, do I want to want to give up a first-round pick for a goaltender that may have a year or two left on his deal, and then we lose him? An older guy? Not really the plan that I’m looking for.

“Cam takes a lot of criticism, but Cam — from December to the end of the year — was one of the top five goalies in the league in goals against and save percentage. I think there’s some merit to revisiting that as we move forward.”

To be honest, a reunion makes sense.

The ‘Canes definitely need an experienced goalie for next season. Eddie Lack‘s locked in, but prized prospect Alex Nedeljkovic — the 37th overall pick in ’14 — is still only 20 years old and needs more seasoning. The same can be said of another young goalie prospect, Daniel Altshuller, who has just one year of AHL experience.

The UFA goalie market isn’t exactly flush and, as Francis suggested, the trade market doesn’t seem appealing. Which means that Ward might be the best of the limited options available.

On that note, remember that Ward’s been very public about his desire to stay in Carolina. The 32-year-old has spent his entire NHL career with the ‘Canes, captured the Conn Smythe during the club’s only Stanley Cup win and, perhaps most importantly, is finally freed from the main reason he gets criticized so often:

That contract.

Ward’s monster six-year, $37.8 million deal — one that carried at $6.3 average annual cap hit — expires on July 1. The contract was an albatross, as Ward was routinely one of the NHL’s highest-paid netminders, yet failed to put up elite numbers.

Of course, Francis was sort of right about Ward playing better in the second half of last season, though. Breaking it down month-by-month, Ward posted a .914 save percentage or higher in December, January, February, March and April.

So it’ll be curious to see how big of a pay cut Ward takes to stick with the ‘Canes — especially curious since the club signed Lack to a two-year, $5.5 million deal with a $2.75M cap hit last fall.