Amidst all the speculation about which rookies might make the Nashville Predators team coming out of training camp last fall, the inclusion of Joel Ward went virtually unnoticed. A rather anonymous 27 year-old with only 11 games of NHL experience with Minnesota two seasons ago, Ward wasn't well-known to Preds fans who were looking forward to Patric Hornqvist's North American debut.
By season's end, however, Ward had become a fan favorite, and is talked about alongside Steve Sullivan as a free agent that the team must re-sign. Let's take a look at how Ward performed this season, and what might expected going forward.
|2008 - Joel Ward||79||17||18||35||1||29||3||2||2||0||133||12.8|
On a team that got slightly outscored in general at even strength (GF/GA = 0.94), Ward's On-Ice vs. Off-Ice impact on Plus/Minus (+0.16 Rating) doesn't particularly stand out. What he did provide, however, was responsible defensive play along with moderate goal-scoring; his 12 even-strength goals, when compared against his games played and ice time, put him 4th on the team in Goals/60 Min at 0.75. Here's a look at an assortment of 5-on-5 numbers from Behind the Net, focusing on Ward as compared to the "Top Six" forwards on the team:
On a team that often struggled to score, this offensive contribution was sorely needed. What earned Ward a regular spot in the lineup, however, was his ability to win more than his share of puck battles along the boards, and a habit of making safe plays at both blue lines, something Barry Trotz stresses constantly.
While his bio says he's 6'2" and 205 pounds, he seemed to play even bigger than that. If an opponent was pressuring him from his left side, he had the confidence to hold the puck calmly out of reach and make a play, rather than simply getting rid of it.
Perhaps Ward's best goal of the year came against Detroit, as he used his size to hold off Brian Rafalski while driving the net:
Although a secondary (or even tertiary) option on the power play as he averaged 1:10 on the man advantage per game, Ward chipped in at a moderate pace. His 3 PP goals don't sound impressive, but when you take the ice time into account, his PP Goals/60 minutes (1.95) was 2nd best on the team among guys with at least 1:00 of PP time per game behind ... Radek Bonk (2.07)? This isn't to say that Ward is an elite PP performer, just that there may be opportunity for an expanded role there. We all know that the Nashville power play is in dire need of help.
This is really where Ward made his mark on the team. Out of 182 forwards with at least 40 GP and 1:00 per game of 4-on-5 PK work, Ward's Goals Against/60 Minutes of 3.69 was 10th best in the entire league.
For sake of comparison, how did the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) finalists fare? Here are their 4-on-5 GA/60 numbers for this season:
- Mike Richards, 5.34
- Ryan Kesler, 6.79
- Pavel Datsyuk, 7.35
At the top of the box, Ward's experience and long reach allowed him to disrupt opposing offenses, and, when needed, he could also step in along the boards to break up a cycling effort.
The $64,000 Question with Joel Ward is, does he have upside as an NHL player? Most would argue that at the age of 28, he's pretty much a known quantity and that hoping for anything more than 40 points next season is blind optimism.
If the same level of production could be obtained going forward, however, Joel Ward represents an upgrade over prototypical Predators depth forwards like Vern Fiddler or Jerred Smithson; he provides the disciplined play (his +10 was the 2nd-best Penalty Plus/Minus on the Preds) and gritty defensive work with significant offensive contributions. Folks, this is the kind of depth player than can help a team make a deep run in the playoffs.
As for how much of a raise he can expect next season, I hope to dig into that question next week, but it's safe to say that Ward should top the $1 million mark. As an unrestricted free agent, will he test the broader market, or will David Poile work out a deal to keep him in Nashville? In my