Few teams and players will be more happy to see a free agency signing walk through the locker room door this season than Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes will be to accept new backup goaltender Brian Boucher.
Boucher, signed away from the Philadelphia Flyers by Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford, should provide the sort of dependable backup between the pipes that the Hurricanes sorely lacked with backup Justin Peters in the 2010-11 season.
And while all-star Ward is, of course, Carolina's ticket to big picture success, Boucher may just end up being the key ingredient to pushing the Hurricanes back into the playoffs.
Last season was an uphill, frustrating pull for Carolina. Right on the doorstep of the eighth seed for most of the year, the Hurricanes found themselves in seemingly must-win situations night after night.
These nightly big games, and with the 3-5-1 Peters (.875 save percentage) unable to provide production that Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice could count on, placed Ward in the position of having to play more than any other goaltender in the league.
Ward came through with big numbers, finishing first in the league in saves (2191), tied for third in the league in wins (37), and seventh in the league in save percentage (.923).
But no goalie had to do more to carry their team than Ward had to do for the Hurricanes last season. Rutherford stated the obvious going into free agency: that a backup goaltender was a priority for the team.
In Boucher, Carolina could have their man. Producing his best season since his rookie campaign of 1999-00, Boucher went 18-10-4, with a .916 save percentage last year in the revolving net that was Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette's goaltending rotation.
The Hurricanes won't necessarily be counting on Boucher to repeat numbers as impressive as those. But Carolina certainly has to rely on more than three wins out of their backup goalie if they hope to push through into a playoff spot, and Boucher should be able to provide the relief Ward needs.
Boucher's ability to provide more nights off for Ward and produce wins while doing it will clearly be a main key toward the Hurricanes returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And it's not like the Hurricanes are miles away from being a playoff team.
Last season, despite the strain placed on Ward, Carolina missed out on the postseason only after losing the final regular season game to Tampa Bay.
One of the reasons Rutherford knows that Boucher can pay such dividends is that the difference between contention and making a deep run in the playoffs once you get there is probably smaller in the NHL than in any other professional league.
Keep in mind that a fifth seed or lower has made the NHL Eastern Conference finals in each of the last four seasons. Three of those seasons saw a sixth seed or lower make it that far. The Hurricanes themselves made a run to the conference finals as a sixth seed in 2009, and the Flyers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final as a seventh seed in 2010.
And the Hurricanes know that if they can get into the playoffs, they have a player in Ward in net that can produce a deep run in the postseason.
The trick is getting there.
To be sure, Carolina has plenty of other issues as they try to return to the postseason.
Special teams killed the Hurricanes last season, as they finished 24th in the league on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill. Carolina's attacking style is effective in forcing the action, as the Hurricanes' 346-272 advantage on power play opportunities would attest. But they have to cash in on those advantages once they have them.
And a near the league bottom face off percentage of 44.6% doesn't help with puck possession, leading to the enormous number of shots Ward is having to face. New Carolina assistant coach Rod Brind'Amour, as well as free agent pickup Tim Brent (52.0% face off percentage), should help shore up the face off issues.
Certainly there are other areas the Hurricanes will need to improve in order to return to the playoffs.
But it may just be the under-the-radar pickup of Boucher that could push the Hurricanes back to a playoff level.
Ward, Rutherford, Maurice and the rest of the Hurricanes are hoping that will be the case.
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