Drafting goaltenders in the 1st round has been hazardous territory, particularly in the 2000s, and I think some of this is a reflection of great expectations versus goalie growth curves, which suggest that goalies peak a bit later than skaters. It's also a function of bad luck, as a high number of 1st round goalies have had significant injury problems.
If you looked at Cam Ward's wins total or goals-against average over the years, you'd see a goalie that can't seem to be consistent. If you looked into the splits of his save percentage, you'd swear you were seeing the emergence of an elite goaltender. He's closer to the latter than the former, but I think Ward gives us an opportunity to address a couple of key questions, including a.) Is Ward the ideal leaning curve for a 1st round goalie and b.) At what point do we consider a goalie "elite"?
As most of us will agree, it's pretty out-there to expect that a 1st round goalie will jump into the fire and play like an HOF'er early on. Yet nearly every generation we have a story of a goalie that does just that, and I think there has been some ambivalence about Cam Ward because he hasn't followed his Conn Smythe with the kinds of numbers we saw out of Esposito, Dryden, or Roy.
That being said, I'd like to appreciate what appears to be a pretty impressive development (considering the fluctuating Hurricanes' fortunes):
Year Even Strength SV% Rank Among Goalies w/40+ Starts
2006-07 89.9 18th
2007-08 91.7 Tied - 14th
2008-09 92.6 Tied - 7th
2009-10 92.4 Tied - 8th
You'll notice I'm ranking him among goalies with 40 or more starts. What I'm trying to do there is kind of a play on Tom Awad's excellent series on "good players" by applying it to goalies (not on his suggestion, by the way, so it's a matter of debate whether it's right to do). In general, I'm assuming that a good initial barometer for comparing good goalies is by taking the goalies that are getting relatively consistent playing time. I end up with a grouping with about 30 goaltenders, with the bottom being a mediocre handful of goalies but the overall average save percentage holding across 4 years at 92.1%.
Of course, this year's impressive start isn't sustainable, but it's worth noting as well. Should he be able to finish the year at around 92.5 ESV% (and 8th or above in rank in the category), we have to start thinking about when we can officially say that Ward is either a.) a good goaltender, or b.) one of the best goaltenders. Before you start hating on the "one of the best" designation, I'll point out that the only goalies over the last 4 years to have 3 seasons of 40+ starts and an ESV% in the top 8 are Tomas Vokoun, Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, and Roberto Luongo.*
Weighing the expectations with the outcome, I think Ward is very close to the ideal learning curve for a 1st round goalie. And I also think he's very close to being what I'd call "elite".
*Kari Lehtonen was very close, by the way, to being a part of that list as well. He had 6th, 8th, and 9th place finishes from 2006-07 to 2008-09.