By: Adam Gretz
The Washington Capitals made a strong effort to become a better defensive team during the 2010-11 season, allowing just 197 goals (a 36-goal improvement from the previous year), the fourth-best mark in the NHL. Based on their moves this summer, they could be an even tougher team to score against in 2011. Not only did they re-sign Brooks Laich, a strong defensive presence up front, to go along with the free agency additions of Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun, they also added one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL in 30-year-old Joel Ward, formerly of the Nashville Predators. He was signed to a four-year contract on July 1.
A player who can easily be described as a "late bloomer," Ward has never been one to light up the scoreboard with huge goal or point totals, but he has been counted on to play some of the toughest minutes in the NHL against the toughest competition in the toughest situations.
He was kind enough to spend a few minutes on the phone with me on Wednesday evening to discuss the free agency process, his role on the ice and his long journey to the NHL.
Adam Gretz: What was the July 1 free agency process like for you? Did you have a list of teams that you had in your mind that you wanted to play for, did you simply wait for your agent's phone to ring at 12:01 and sort through the offers, or was it a combination of the two?
Joel Ward: I'd say it was a little bit of both. I had a couple of teams in mind that I thought I'd like to pursue and Washington was definitely up there, so I was pretty excited when they contacted my agent. I was hoping to land a spot there if I could and things worked out so I'm pretty excited about the new opportunity.
Gretz: What was it about Washington that attracted you? The organization, the staff, the style … perhaps it was watching them on 24/7 last year?
Ward: (laughs) It was a combination of all of those things. I definitely watched 24/7 and I liked the makeup of the team, and I thought that was a really good program to get an outsiders perspective. But again, I just liked the makeup of the team. It's a very high powered offense and at times more of a defensive style, and it's a bit of a different look than what I was used to in Nashville. I thought making the playoffs every year and giving themselves an opportunity was always going to be a fun spot to be in to try and hoist the Stanley Cup.
Gretz: Whenever a player signs a contract, whether it be re-signing with a team or signing a deal in free agency, the first thing we always do is say, OK, this guy scored this many goals last year and now he's making this much money. If you were to do that with a player like yourself, you kind of miss what your real value is. In Nashville you were always playing against the other teams top line, starting in the defensive zone. You were playing tough minutes. You're not out there to score 40 goals. Your job is to stop the other teams 40 goal scorer from scoring.
Ward: That's exactly it. We did it a little different in Nashville with a very defensive style. I would ask people if they could guess who our leading goal-scorer was and a lot of people would be a little confused by it (it was Sergei Kostitsyn), but it's just a different mix.
We had a different collection of guys that stepped up in different situations, and that's the way we did it there. My game is just to be defensively sound, pay attention to detail and get the puck up the ice. I was very excited to get that opportunity in Nashville. I take pride in playing at both ends of the rink and to be good at every position. You don't have to be good at one spot, just try to do everything well and hope that keeps up and creates more ice-time for yourself.
Last year I started learning face-offs and doing a little bit of that and working in the defensive zone and different areas in coverage, and it kind of helped a lot. It was definitely a learning curve, but I think I became better as the year went on with my responsibilities in my own end. And again, offensively if you can get the puck out of the zone, which I take pride in along the boards, it creates opportunities for your linemates for offensive chances.
Gretz: Is that something you learn early on that, OK, as much as I want to I'm probably not going to score 50 goals, so I better make sure I can contribute in as many other areas as I can?
Ward: You're right. It's no secret, I'm not going out there to score 50, but then again, who is? Not many guys are doing that. In order to succeed in this league you just have to go out there every night and consistently try to work on the skills you do have. I've kind of learned playing the defensive side of things it can create offensive chances. I just take pride on the walls and trying to get open for my d-man for that outlet pass and try to make plays off the wall as opposed to just shooting it out. It's something I've been doing for a while now, and it's something I want to bring to Washington and try to win over the fans and say, 'Hey, I'm here to win games and I'm here to compete.'
Gretz: You've developed a reputation as being a "big-game" player, a guy that raises his level of play in the playoffs. That's a pretty good reputation to have in this league -- especially when it comes to free agency -- because every team wants a guy who plays his best in the biggest situations.
Ward: It's playoff hockey. It's a fun time of year. You get in the playoffs, and it's a fresh start, and regardless of who you're playing against you just try to stay in the moment as best you can. I mean, who wouldn't want to win the Stanley Cup? That's my attitude, I just want to win, and I'm sure everybody else does, and you just go out there and try to execute and work hard and hope positive things happen.
I'm just really excited about the opportunity here in Washington, and the team they have here, and hopefully I can bring a little bit more to help out. It's just a fun time of year to be in the playoffs. You watch the Boston-Vancouver series, you kind of wish you were there. I remember just kind of staring at the TV watching as Boston was skating around with the cup, and you wish that can be you, and I think I gave myself a better opportunity to do that here in Washington.
Gretz: Washington really seemed to shift its style last year and became a lot more defensive. They scored fewer goals and allowed a lot fewer as well. Obviously, you're a shutdown type of guy up front, so it would appear that your skill set would really fit in well with what they're doing there.
Ward: Definitely. That's what we did down in Nashville the past couple of years; we were a tight defensive group and tried to feast on turnovers and opportunities. Playing in a system like that definitely benefits, and I'm ready to learn whatever system I have to play. I'll definitely know my role when I'm out there and try to provide the best opportunity for my linemates to create chances. You know, defensive hockey isn't just staying in your own zone and defending. If you're playing in the oppositions side of the ice, hey, that's less time you have to play in your zone. More attack zone is the way I look at it defensively. Just try to keep the puck in the other team's end cycling and creating more opportunities.
Gretz: Your journey to the NHL is pretty fascinating. You were undrafted, you've played roller hockey, you've played college hockey in Canada, various minor leagues … and here you are now. I think there's a lesson in there that goes beyond hockey, kind of, whatever you want to do, keep going, keep doing it, keep working at it .. a never give up type of thing. When you were going through all of that, did you ever imagine that you would be in a position where NHL teams would be lining up to try and sign you on the first day of free agency?
Ward:It's funny you say that. I will always tell everyone I think I've played every type of hockey there is on the face of the planet. I think it kind of made me humble, playing in the different leagues. I went to a Canadian University and graduated with my sociology degree, so it's definitely been a long road, but I've always wanted to play in the National Hockey League. Growing up in Toronto, you're always watching the Maple Leafs, so as a kid in this area, you're always looking for an opportunity. It's been a long road for myself and my family to this point, but the next step now is to try and go deep in the playoffs and try to do some damage.
Since: Sep 11, 2006
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Joel Ward discusses his role in Washington
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Since: Jun 25, 2009
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Joel Ward discusses his role in Washington