RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes ended an era Sunday at the opening of free agency, allowing longtime goaltender Cam Ward to leave and bringing in Petr Mrazek as his replacement.
Ward, the 25th overall selection in the 2002 NHL Draft, spent the past 13 seasons with the Hurricanes, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP his rookie season in 2006 when the Hurricanes captured their only Stanley Cup. His part in the team’s playoff drought — now at nine years — contributed to Ward’s departure, even though last season he outplayed high-priced acquisition Scott Darling. He signed a one-year deal in Chicago worth $3 million.
“Nothing against Cam Ward — Cam Ward’s been a great player for this franchise,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said of the franchise leader in wins who will back up Corey Crawford in Chicago. “But we felt at 26, there’s still upside in front of (Mrazek). We knew where Cam was in his career, and we’re going to wish him the best of luck. But the age was a big factor for us.”
Waddell made getting a goalie his lone priority on July 1, opting to wait to make other additions or see if more trades become available as teams miss out on targeted free agents.
In Ward’s place comes the Czech netminder Mrazek, who played the first 166 games of his career with the Red Wings before being traded to Philadelphia in February.
“There was nobody that had been a starter in the league except for Petr. … We felt that there’s still upside,” Waddell said of the goalie market. “And the other thing that was very appealing when I talked to Petr on the phone when we did the interview with him, he said, ‘I want to go someplace on a one-year deal and prove that I’m the guy to be the No. 1 guy.’”
Mrazek had a breakthrough season in 2015-16, going 27-16-6 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, earning him a two-year extension worth $4 million a season from Detroit. But he regressed the next two seasons, hovering near a .900 save percentage and allowing more than three goals a game.
He was outdueled for the Red Wings starting job by Jimmy Howard, and he was dealt to the Flyers in February but struggled to regain form.
A few players who did not re-sign with the Hurricanes found new homes on the first day of free agency.
Center Derek Ryan — who made his NHL debut with the Hurricanes at age 29 at the end of the 2015-16 season and played 153 games over the last three years with Carolina — reunited with coach Bill Peters in Calgary, signing a three-year, $9.375 million contract.
Winger Joakim Nordstrom signed a two-year deal totaling $2 million with the Bruins. Nordstrom was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Hurricanes as a restricted free agent, giving him the option of signing with any team.
Defenseman Jake Chelios, who joined Carolina’s affiliate in Charlotte on an AHL deal in 2015 before earning two-way NHL contracts the last two summers, signed a one-year, two-way pact with the Red Wings. His father, Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, won two Stanley Cups in Detroit in the 2000s.
Despite a relatively quiet start to free agency, the Hurricanes may not be done reshaping their roster.
The team has been actively shopping former Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner, who has one year remaining on his contract and can test the free agent market next summer.
Carolina also has a glut of right-handed defensemen after adding Dougie Hamilton in a draft weekend trade. Justin Faulk, one of the team’s co-captains last season, has had his name in trade rumors and could be the odd-man out if Waddell decides to move one his surplus defenseman.
If Carolina gets restricted free agent Trevor van Riemsdyk signed — Waddell said Sunday the two sides were getting close — that would give the Hurricanes two left-handed defensemen signed to NHL deals. The team could still pursue a third lefty to fill out its roster, specifically if a right-handed defenseman is moved out, but Waddell said the team was both comfortable with moving Brett Pesce to the left side and with its current cast of defenders.