Posted on: July 6, 2011 8:42 pm
Edited on: July 7, 2011 9:09 am
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.
Posted on: July 2, 2011 6:18 pm
Edited on: July 2, 2011 7:28 pm
Vokoun was the top goalie available on the free-agent market and seemed destined to go to Colorado if he didn't re-sign with the Florida Panthers. When the Cats signed Jose Theodore, it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the Avs signed the veteran goaltender.
Apparently turned off by Vokoun's asking price, the Avs moved on by trading for Semyon Varlamov -- from the Capitals -- and signing Jean-Sebastien Giguere to back him up. That left the question lingering: where would Vokoun sign?
The Capitals had a trio of young goaltenders up until yesterday in Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. When they shipped Varlamov -- who was close to going to the KHL -- most assumed the Caps would go with the duo of Neuvirth and Holtby. Instead, they sign Vokoun -- at a very cheap rate, mind you -- to come in and help the youngsters while trying to help the Capitals advance deeper in the playoffs.
"He's been on teams with no chance to win for a very long time," Vokoun's agent Michael Deutsch said. "The opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup means a great deal to him."
In his 13 seasons spent between the Panthers, Nashville Predators and one game with the Montreal Canadiens, Vokoun has only appeared in five playoff games. That's partly because of the teams he has had in front of him. Vokoun has continually put up one of the better save percentages in the NHL, last year posting a .922 percentage in Florida.
Signing him at such a low price considering his status as the elite and perhaps even the only full-time starting goaltender available, is no risk for the Caps. For Vokoun, it's a significantly lower salary than I'm sure he expected to command.
By Brian Stubits
Photo: Getty Images
Click here for more free-agency updates.
Posted on: July 1, 2011 2:07 pm
Edited on: July 1, 2011 5:18 pm
The Avalanche have a hole to fill in net and most assumed they would do it by signing Tomas Vokoun. Perhaps they still do, but bringing in Varlamov could signal the deal fell through with Vokoun.
Varlamov had been rumored to be on his way to the KHL, but stated he wanted to try and stay in the NHL, just that his days in Washington were done. Now he likely has his chance to stay in the States and be a starter.
Now where does Vokoun go? The Miami Herald's George Richards suggests the netminder could be headed to the desert to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. Still, where Vokoun ends up will be one of the most interesting questions to follow for the rest of the day.
By Brian Stubits
Photo: Getty Images
Click here for more free-agency updates.
Posted on: June 29, 2011 5:51 pm
Edited on: June 30, 2011 12:06 pm
If this were real estate, we'd call it a seller's market and Tomas Vokoun would be the blemished old house down the road that ends up looking like a palace.
That was one of the many things that resulted from the Ilya Bryzgalov-to-Philadelphia story. Vokoun was left as the clear cream of the crop for teams in search of goaltending, which figures to be a short list. Teams like Colorado, and possibly Phoenix and Edmonton will need to address their situations -- as will the Florida Panthers.
Because of his status as the best option available, Vokoun will likely command another high salary, not necessarily because his play warrants it but the market could dictate as such. In the end that will largely depend on how many teams decide to take a gander at the goaltender.
Here are this year's best goaltenders (in alphabetical order).
Brian Boucher -- Flyers: The veteran was much maligned in Philadelphia, but he was serviceable. Last season he played 34 games for the Flyers, going 18-10-4 with a .916 save percentage and 2.42 goals against average. While he doesn't figure to be a starting goaltender for any team, he certainly still has value to a team looking for a solid backup.
Ray Emery -- Ducks: Once upon a time, Emery looked to be a promising up-and-comer in the NHL with the Senators. Since then he struggled, went to the KHL then returned to Philly before finding out he had avascular necrosis which led to the removal of 13 centimeters of his right fibula. But he came back last season for the Ducks, earning a Masterton Trophy nomination, winning seven of his 10 regular-season starts before going 2-3 in the playoffs. Point is, Emery appears able to be a contributor again for a team in net.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- Maple Leafs: A long way removed from his Conn Smythe run in 2003, Giguere has spent the last two seasons in Toronto, no longer a starting-quality goaltender. In 33 games for the Leafs in 2010-11, he had an 11-11-4 record with a less-than stellar 2.87 GAA and .900 save percentage. Now 34, Giguere's demand won't be very high but would provide a veteran backup for some team in need.
Vokoun -- Panthers: There are varying opinions about Vokoun, some point to him playing just five playoff games in his career while others note how bad the teams in front of him in both Nashville and Florida have been. His .922 save percentage is proof he can play. Vokoun is streakier than your average goalie, capable of having a month-long run where he is unbeatable followed by a bevy of three-, four-goal games. Teams in the hunt will be those looking for a full-time starter, most likely Colorado.
Others of interest: Mike Smith (TB), Jose Theodore (MIN), Josh Harding (MIN), Johan Hedberg (NJ), Pascal Leclaire (OTT)
By Brian Stubits
Photo: Getty Images
Posted on: June 18, 2011 4:23 pm
Edited on: June 20, 2011 1:34 pm
As the July 1 date for the opening of free agency approaches, it's looking like there will be at least one upper-echelon goaltender available.
Tomas Vokoun has yet to sign an extension with the Florida Panthers, and seems certain to test the waters. His agent, Michael C. Deutsch, told ESPN.com on Saturday that, "at this point it looks like he'll hit the open market ... [Vokoun]'s keeping all his options open, including going back to Florida."
Panthers GM Dale Tallon is non-committal at this point as to which direction the team is going to go with Vokoun. The goaltender situation in Florida has Scott Clemmensen as Vokoun's backup and very promising Swede Jacob Markstrom among other prospects in the system. With a team undergoing a youth movement, the veteran and expensive Vokoun might not be the best fit.
Vokoun was quoted in a Czech newspaper as being interested in going to Colorado, which has an opening in net right now, but Deutsch denied Vokoun ever said a thing to the paper. That still doesn't mean the Avs wouldn't be in play.
Before the Flyers traded for the rights to Ilya Bryzgalov, the big question was which of the two goalies would they chase in free agency. At this point, Philly hasn't reached a deal with Bryzgalov, so it's still possible that if things don't work out between the two, Vokoun and Philadelphia could come together.
Vokoun has played the last four seasons in Florida after spending eight years in Nashville. Playing in front of a poor team, Vokoun had a 22-28-5 record for the Panthers last season while posting a very respectable .922 save percentage and 2.55 goals against average.
-- Brian Stubits
Posted on: June 7, 2011 2:30 pm
Edited on: June 7, 2011 3:54 pm
We're still a few weeks away from free agency beginning and have the draft to come first, but the rumor mill is starting to spin.
Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov could be on his way out of the desert -- especially after the Coyotes just re-signed Jason LaBarbera -- so the question is where will he go? His services will be highly sought after considering he's one of top goalies available.
According to a report from Russia's Sport-Express (thankfully it was translated by a Sports-Exchange reporter on Twitter), the leaders for his services are the usual suspects: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington.The first two have some questions in net, but the Capitals are a little surprising. They seem to have serious promise with three youngsters in Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby. The other teams, though, have some issues to solve in net. The Lightning's two goaltenders (Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith) are both able to hit the free market and the Flyers, well, they have been trying to solve their net issue for a few years. The hope is that Sergei Bobrovsky can be the answer, and he certainly could be, but his stumbles down the stretch raised questions.
The other big name available this offseason in goal is Tomas Vokoun, who is yet to sign an extension with the Florida Panthers. It will be interesting to see which of the two goaltenders will be the first target, setting the way for the other. Both had comparable numbers this last season (Vokoun .922 save percentage/2.55 goals against, Bryzgalov .921/2.48) and figure to have the same suitors and comparable contract offers.
-- Brian Stubits
Posted on: April 10, 2011 12:06 pm
Edited on: April 10, 2011 12:20 pm
Peter DeBoer’s tenure as the Florida Panthers coach has ended after three mostly disappointing seasons, the club announced Sunday.
DeBoer compiled a 103-107-36 record behind the Panthers’ bench and never led the team to the playoffs. The Panthers, who finished in the East basement, have now gone 10 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance.
"These decisions are always tough to make, but we felt strongly that it was the right time to make a change," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon in a statement. "We need to go in a new direction with a fresh approach and philosophy as it relates to our head coaching position. The entire Panthers organization would like to thank Peter for his hard work and service to this franchise and wish him all the best in the future."
DeBoer addressed his future after his team’s 1-0 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
“I was just trying to get a win,” DeBoer told reporters after the game. “We talked about this. I had a lot of time for this to sink in. It’s not like you’re dealing with it overnight. Again, we got the guys ready to play. I thought they played right to the buzzer of the last game.”
The Panthers will also have to figure out if and how they can keep another pillar of the team this offseason as goalie Tomas Vokoun becomes an unrestricted free agent.
-- A.J. Perez and Erin Brown
Photo: Getty Images