Theme: “A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.”
-- Henrik Ibsen
Dale Hunter, Joe Juneau, Joel Ward. Whatever Joel Ward does over the remaining three years of his contract with the Washington Capitals, his name will be mentioned along with those of Dale Hunter and Joe Juneau as Capitals who ended a playoff series with an overtime goal in Game 7. It was the high point of what must have been a frustrating season for the newcomer who arrived in Washington as a free agent in July 2011.
Ward started well enough with points in his first two games as a Capital and going 4-3-7, plus-6 in his first dozen games. But when Ward notched that fourth goal in his 12th game, the first Caps goal in what would be a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders on November 5th, it would be the last goal he would score for 26 games. And it wasn’t as if breaking the goalless streak led to a deluge. When he broke the streak with a goal against San Jose in a 5-2 loss on January 7th, he promptly embarked on a goalless streak of 21 games.
It was a barren stretch that was part of a season in which Ward finished with full-season career lows in goals (six), power play goals (none), game-winning goals (none), and shots on goal (79). He was such a non-factor on offense that despite playing in 73 games he did not qualify to be ranked among forwards in shooting percentage. Not that it mattered; his 7.6 percent efficiency would have ranked him 229th of 282 qualifying forwards.
But there is a flip side to this story. There were 308 forwards who were on ice for more goals against than was Joel Ward last season. In more than 900 minutes of ice time he was on ice for a total of 25 goals, only 11 percent of the total number of goals Washington allowed last season (226). None of the other ten Capital forwards playing in at least 60 games was close to that low a total (Mathieu Perreault was on ice for 31 goals in 64 games). To put those numbers in a little perspective, Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron was on ice for 51 goals in 1,500 minutes of ice time. Joel Ward might not be a Selke-level quality of defender, but he had a very effective season helping keep opponents off the scoreboard.
Let’s dive a little deeper into that defensive thing for a moment. Considering that he struggled with his own offense, it is impressive that he was 45th among 368 NHL forwards playing in at least 40 games in his plus-minus/60 minutes at 5-on-5. He had the 14th lowest goals against/on ice per 60 minutes among those 368 forwards. His was the 15th highest PDO value among those forwards, a product of Caps goalies having a .944 save percentage when he was on the ice in those situations (21st). And it is not as if he was facing stiffs; Ward finished in the top half of those forwards (168th) in quality of competition faced (all numbers from behindthenet.ca).
Lemme get this straight. The Caps sign a guy to a four year/$12 million contract, largely off the fact that he could give solid third line minutes (he was fourth among forwards in average ice time in Nashville in 2010-2011), that he could contribute on the power play (he was third in power play goals for Nashville in 2010-2011), and could be sturdy in the post season (he led the Predators in total and power play scoring in the 2011 post season). So, he gets his average ice time cut by more than four and a half minutes a game, he fails to record a single power play point, and that overtime goal against Boston in Game 7 of the first round was his only playoff goal. The Caps bought a heavy duty pickup truck and used it as a lawn ornament.
The Big Question… Was Ward’s season in 2011-2012 an aberration, or was it part of a slow decline in production?
17-13-10-6… 35-34-29-18… 12.8 - 9.7 - 6.4 - 7.6. That is Joel Ward’s four-year progression in goals, points, and shooting percentage, respectively. There are 10 players that capgeek.com identifies as spot-on comparables with Ward in terms of his $3.0 million cap hit. Those ten players averaged 75 games played last season with a 19-23-42 scoring line. Ward was 6-12-18 in 73 games. He certainly showed glimpses early on of what he was brought to Washington for, but as the season wore on his offense dried up. To his credit, he played hard and responsibly in the defensive end in a system that valued those attributes. But at $3.0 million a year, 18 points is probably below the low end of expected contributions in the offensive end. Given the forwards the Caps have assembled for this season, can Ward expect to improve on his production from getting more than the 12:25 a night he skated last season?
In the end…
If you look at what projects as the Caps’ top three lines, you can see an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Brouwer top line. On the second line you can see Mike Ribeiro centering Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera. A third line might have Brooks Laich centering Wojtek Wolski and Ward. On the other hand, if the Caps want to get a player like Mathieu Perreault minutes, Ward could be fighting for fourth line time with Matt Hendricks, Joey Crabb, and Jay Beagle.
Ward suffered a lot last season from having a poorly defined role and was the victim of deployment decisions that seemed at odds with the reasons that made his signing logical. He might be embarking on a similar journey of uncertainty this season. Some of that uncertainty is a product of the Caps taking chances with the likes of Wolski or watching to see if last year’s production from Perreault can be duplicated, if not improved upon. That makes for the possibility of opportunities for a veteran such as Ward. And as Caps fans saw in Game 7 against the Bruins last season, Ward is capable of taking advantage of an opportunity.
Projection: 78 games, 9-13-22, plus-12
Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder