Theme: “If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”
-- Henry David Thoreau
Joel Ward is in a select society of Washington Capitals. He is one of three players in franchise history to end a playoff series in overtime with a goal. He took his place alongside Dale Hunter (1988) and Joe Juneau (1998) when he scored in overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in 2012.
Then, misfortune. It was his double-minor penalty taken for high-sticking with 22 seconds left in Game 5 of the conference semis that gave the New York Rangers a four-minute power play. The Rangers scored on both ends – the first with 6.6 seconds left in regulation to tie, then at 1:35 into the first overtime to give the Rangers the win and deny the Caps the chance to go up 3-2 in games. The Caps lost the series in seven games.
How did Ward respond to the high and the low when he returned for the 2013 season? He played in each of the Caps’ first 39 games, going 8-12-20, plus-7 in the process. He ended that run with a flourish, recording a goal (the game-winner) and an assist in earning the first star in a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on April 7th.
However, that game would be his last in the regular season. With 8:48 gone in the third period, and the Caps clinging to a 3-2 lead, Ward blocked a shot by Lightning defenseman Sami Salo. Ward suffered a contusion to his left knee. He missed the last nine games of the regular season, but he would return from that injury in time for Game 1 against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and would tie for the team lead in scoring against New York in the seven-game series (although four points to lead the team should not be seen as all that impressive; that a grinder getting 13 minutes a game would, perhaps somewhat more).
Ward settled into a third/fourth line role with the club last year. It was a role perhaps not envisioned when he signed a four-year/$12 million contract in 2011, but he was at least as productive as one would expect from someone playing the role he was asked to play. His eight goals in 39 games last year was his second best goals-per game (0.21) in his six-year career, just behind his 17 goals in 79 games (0.22/game) with Nashville in 2008-2009. His 20 points in 39 games (0.51 points/game) was his career best, this despite his being seventh among forwards in total ice time per game and ninth at five-on-five.
Ward had solid, if unspectacular possession numbers. He was fifth among Capital forwards in Corsi and relative Corsi at 5-on-5 (20 games minimum; source: behindthenet.ca), numbers which look better in light of his 44.8 percent offensive zone starts at 5-on-5. His PDO value (sum of team shooting percentage and save percentage, on ice, at 5-on-5) was third among forwards, this after finishing first among forwards in 2011-2012 (minimum: 40 games).
OK, about that production. Buffalo, Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Florida were the bottom four finishers in the Eastern Conference. Ward played 14 games against those four teams and went 6-9-15, plus-8. In 25 games against everyone else he was 2-3-5, minus-1. Against teams he will be playing against in the Metropolitan Division in 2013-2014 he was 2-3-5, minus-6 in 19 games (the Caps did not play against Columbus).
Then there was the fast start thing. In 2013 he started 5-6-11, plus-7 in his first 14 games (a 29-35-64, plus-41 82-game pace), but then went 3-6-9, even, in his last 25 games (a 10-20-30, even pace over 82 games). It was a lot like his 2011-2012 season where he went 4-3-7, plus-6 in his first 12 games (a 27-21-48, plus-41 pace) and 2-9-11, plus-6 in his last 61 games (a 3-12-15, plus-8 pace).
The Big Question… Where will Joel play?
This is a question that might have less to do with what Ward does and more what Adam Oates does. More to the point, what Oates does with Eric Fehr. So far this preseason Fehr has been getting time at center, moving from what one might have thought to be his spot on the right side of the third line. If Oates sees this as a permanent fixture in the Caps’ lineup, it will open up the right wing spot on the third line for Ward. Unless…
And this is where Ward might have some (perhaps limited, though) impact on where he sets up shop. Moving Fehr to center opens up the right wing spot on the third line for Tom Wilson, too, who Oates seems to want on the roster to start the season. Wilson and Ward would be fighting it out to see who plays where between the third and fourth lines, at least to start the season.
In the end…
Joel Ward had one of his best seasons in terms of offensive productivity last season despite the second lowest average ice time per game in his five full seasons in the NHL. It would be hard for him to replicate those numbers, unless you think a 15.4 percent shooting percentage is sustainable. Keep in mind that his career shooting percentage going into last season was 8.9 percent (it was 10.3 percent over his last 32 games last season).
Ward did, however, display versatility. Among Capitals forwards with the team all season in 2013 he was one of only three forwards who averaged more than one minute of both power play and shorthanded ice time. This was a large departure from his 2011-2012 experience when he averaged only 45 seconds of combined special teams ice time per game.
It is safe to say Ward is going to play on the right side… somewhere. Where that is, is not entirely in his control. Roster machinations – where Adam Oates decides to play Eric Fehr, whether George McPhee chooses to keep Tom Wilson on the roster (which would require another roster move to free salary cap space) – will be the moving parts that will go a long way to determine where Ward will play.
However, none of this seems likely to alter what Ward presents on the ice. He will be an occasional contributor on offense (although it would be nice if it was more “occasional” as the season wears on than it has in his first two years in Washington). He will work in all three zones digging out pucks. He will be a solid, if unspectacular defensive player (he was 48th among 395 NHL forwards in plus-minus per 60 minutes and 125th among that same group in goals scored against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5). With all the ups and downs, with all the other stuff swirling around the forward lines, Ward has been steady as a rock. It is an underappreciated quality.
Projection: 78 games, 11-15-26, plus-7
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America