By Adam Vingan
Joel Ward is far from being a household name. That’s what happens when you play hockey in a market like Nashville: one that may be growing exponentially, but is still unheralded. In fact, Ward and his former employer have a lot in common. This past postseason, Ward and the Predators put themselves on the map as they advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history. And just like the Predators broke through, so did Ward as he led Nashville with seven goals, six assists and 13 points in 12 playoff games.
Ward was able to turn his two-week coming out party into a four-year contract worth $12 million with the Washington Capitals Friday. According to General Manager George McPhee, 16 teams – over half of the NHL – were interested in Ward’s services.
“They were very high on my list,” Ward said in regards to Washington. “One of the teams I’ve actually had a chance to visit the city before and it’s been one of the teams on my list. I like the way they’re made up and with the skill level they have, if I can help on the back end, so to speak, that’s going to be a positive thing. I’m looking forward to it. I always like what the Caps do every season, and I just hope I can kind of come in and help push them over the edge.”
Ward’s story is one of a journeyman who did not play his first full NHL season until he was 28 years old. Ward spent four years at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada -and has since become their most notable hockey alumnus – before joining the Houston Aeros of the AHL. After 11 games with the Minnesota Wild in 2006-07, Ward spent the entire 2007-08 season in Houston before being signed by Nashville as an unrestricted free agent.
During his first season in the “Music City,” Ward made plenty of noise, scoring a career-high 17 goals. His production has wavered since then (13 goals in 2009-10, 10 in 2010-11), but his presence was definitely felt. Think of Ward as a poor man’s Tim Thomas. Thomas did not crack the Boston Bruins’ lineup full-time until he was 31 years old. And most hockey fans know how Thomas’ career has ended up so far.
While it may a stretch to continue comparing Ward’s career to Thomas’, the former, much like the latter, became relevant in the postseason. McPhee said Friday that he would rather have a player like Ward who “gets 10 or 15 [goals] in the regular season, but delivers in the playoffs than someone who gets 25 and doesn’t.” And Ward, who has nine goals in 18 career playoff games, relishes that opportunity.
“I love playoff hockey,” Ward said. “It’s such a fun time of the year. Anytime knowing you’re going to make the playoffs every year and being consistent at it and have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup, it’s always a good feeling, and that was one of the things I was looking forward to and one of the reasons I signed with Nashville. Again, I think everyone thrives on it. You want to try hoist the Stanley Cup, and that’s what I’m going to try to do and hopefully bring that to D.C.”
Much like Matt Bradley before him, the less you hear about Ward, the better he is playing. Ward’s not flashy; he is an industrious player with a never-quit work ethic. As he said himself, Ward will “play in all different areas of the game, five on five, four on four, whatever the case may be, killing penalties, blocking shots or power play.” He just “[wants] to be on the ice and help my team win.” There is not much more a team or a fanbase can ask for.
Ward’s penchant for playing his best when the lights are brightest (along with his grit) will only help Washington get over the proverbial hump. Last season, Ward led Nashville over their hump – the first round – and he will look to do the same for the Caps next season in getting them past the second round for the first time since 1998.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge as I’m sure all the guys are of winning the Stanley Cup,” Ward said. “It’s everyone’s dream, and I just want to contribute and help out and be part of it.”