Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Joel Ward

Joel Ward

Theme: "Expectation is the root of all heartache."
-- William Shakespeare

Joel Ward is one of the great stories of the NHL. Four years in the Ontario Hockey League (Owen Sound Platers/Attack), then four more with the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He was signed to a free agent contract by the Houston Aeros of the AHL in December 2005 before signing – at age 25 – his first NHL contract as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild in September 2006. Ward appeared in his first NHL game in December 2006, and although he had only an assist in 11 games with the Wild and would spend the following season in Houston, he established enough of a foot-hold in the NHL to get the attention of the Nashville Predators. The Preds signed Ward to a free agent contract in July 2008, where he played in 230 games over three seasons, recording 40 goals and 98 points.

But it was the post season of his last year in Nashville that would change the arc of his career in a big way. In 12 playoff games last spring Ward scored seven goals, including four in Nashville’s second round loss to the eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks. That performance made him a hot commodity on the 2011 free agent market, and he was signed by Washington to a four-year/$12 million contract on the first day of the free agent signing period last July.

So now he is going to be the last piece of the puzzle, right? That is where the whole notion of “expectations” can often end in heartache. Expecting Ward to score at a 48-goal pace (what seven goals in 12 playoff games means) is unfair. His regular season averages of 14 goals and 34 points per 82-games, plus the fact that he averaged almost 77 games played in his three full seasons in the NHL suggest a player who will give an honest effort with modest, if potentially valuable results. He is not going to turn into Teemu Selanne.

Fearless’ Take: If anything, Ward’s potential is tantalizing. He got a late start in the NHL, but has made up for it in missing few games in his three seasons. One absence might be noteworthy, though, not for a developing propensity to injury, but for revealing that he might be entering a more productive phase of his career.

Last March, Ward was ambling along with seven goals and 22 points in his first 66 games. Not a lot to get excited about there. But then he had a three-game stretch in mid-March against St. Louis, Minnesota, and Colorado in which he scored goals in each of the three games and recorded five points with a plus-2. Two of the three goals were game-winners. But then he came up with an injury in pre-game warm-up before a March 15th game against Los Angeles. He missed that game and the next against Boston. He returned for the last 11 games of the regular season, but his momentum was snuffed out – he did not score any goals in those last 11 games. Then there was that playoff run he had. So, the question one’s mind might be, was that three-game goal run before his injury an indication that maybe after having passed the 200 game mark in his career he was hitting his scoring stride, to see it interrupted by injury before resuming it in the playoffs. Or, was it merely a nice streak?

Cheerless’ Take: Cuz, it wasn’t the first time he did that. In 2010 he had a three-game goals streak in February, then had one goal in his last 20 games of the regular season. He followed that up with two goals in a six-game playoff loss to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks. And the year before that he had a three-game goal streak in March, only to score two in his last ten games of the season. Let’s not be taking the bus down Expectations Boulevard.

The Big Question… Can Joel Ward be a “contributor” without being consumed by expectations from a big contract?

It is hard to answer a question like this in advance of seeing a body of work, but if there is a player whose path to DC suggests an answer in the affirmative, Ward fills the bill. He certainly paid his dues in a painstaking journey through juniors, collegiate, and minor league hockey before getting his chance. And one he had it, he hing tightly onto it by exhibiting a durability in his three seasons in Nashville. What has to be concerning, though, is that his goal totals dropped in each of those three seasons, from 17 to 13 to 10. That has been coupled with a shooting percentage that dropped in similar fashion, from 12.8 to 9.7 to 6.4 percent. Those numbers should temper expectations of what Ward is going to contribute in terms of scoring numbers.

In the end…

If Ward seen through a clear lens, he is a hard working winger who is likely to contribute more offense than any of the players he could be replacing. Even his ten goals last year was more than Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon, combined (seven). And they were as many as Eric Fehr had. It is also worth noting that Ward missed only two games last season. Fehr missed 29, Bradley missed 21, and Gordon missed 22. There is something to be said for durability. What the Caps are getting is some steel on the bottom half of the forward lines who can knock in a puck or two along the way. Hopefully, the kind of player that a team with designs of a championship needs.

Projection: 78 games: 11-17-28, +2

(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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